BRUSSELS, Dec 3: World diplomats vexed over how to secure Afghanistan’s future used a looming year-end deadline on Tuesday to persuade the war-torn nation’s leaders that allowing thousands of foreign troops to remain there beyond next year is better than being left to protect the country alone.

The latest round of pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai puts the US and its Nato allies in the awkward political position of threatening to leave even as they make a strong case to stay.

It also heightens the possibility of a “zero option” — withdrawing all allied military forces from Afghanistan when the combat mission there ends at the end of 2014. The zero option gives the US and Nato nations an unintended advantage: It would allow them to refocus shrinking budgets on security risks elsewhere in the world as Al Qaeda’s threat in Afghanistan wanes. The dilemma in the war that President Barack Obama championed as a political candidate was a top topic at an annual forum of Nato ministers who will hear from two senior Afghan officials on Wednesday.

It was clear from Tuesday’s meeting that Nato, which has supplied military forces to Afghanistan since 2001, does not want to fully withdraw. A spokeswoman said ministers were in agreement that Kabul needs to sign the US security pact soon, in order to move forward with a similar plan to keep allied troops there.

In all, US and Nato could keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Of those, the US is expected to provide no more than 8,000 to train, equip and assist Afghan security forces.

Karzai has tentatively endorsed the deal, but he shocked allies last month when he refused to sign it after it was approved by a council of tribal elders known as the Loya Jirga. The council said the agreement with the US should be signed by the end of December, as Washington demands.—AP

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