About 2,500 tribal elders and political leaders from all around Afghanistan gathered in the capital, Kabul, for a Loya Jirga, or grand council, to debate whether to allow US troops to stay after the 2014 drawdown of foreign forces.
Without an accord on the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the United States says it could pull out all its troops at the end of 2014 and leave Afghan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency on their own.
In a statement certain to irritate the United States, which is keen to clinch the deal as soon as possible, Karzai told the assembly any agreement on the status of US forces would have to wait until after a presidential election in April.
“This pact should be signed when the election has already taken place, properly and with dignity,” Karzai, who cannot run in the 2014 vote under the constitution, told the elders.
A senior Afghan official speaking on condition of anonymity said Karzai intended to leave the pact unsigned until he was sure the international community would not interfere in the election.
Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, confirmed that, adding that the grand assembly and parliament also had to approve the pact.
“Once we are assured of peace and security, and transparent elections, then President Karzai will sign this pact after the election if this is approved by the Loya Jirga and passed by the parliament,” Faizi said.
He did not explain how Karzai intended to sign the document after a new president had been elected.
Karzai has told Washington that if both countries were unable to agree on the document, the issue could be taken up again after the next election. But the future of the agreement was thrown back into confusion following Karzai’s remarks.
The US Embassy in Kabul declined to comment on Karzai’s statement. US officials have said they would not allow the pact to be delayed that long, as it would be too close to the end of next year when the NATO combat mission ends.
Over the next four days delegates will debate the draft and decide whether they want US troops to stay.
Karzai told the assembly he broadly supported the security pact but said there was little trust between him and US officials.
“My trust with America is not good. I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me,” Karzai said. “During the past 10 years I have fought with them and they have made propaganda against me.”
Karzai called the assembly to muster public support for a pact regarded by many Afghans with contempt.
As Karzai spoke about US assurances, a female senator leapt up to interrupt him, shouting that any deal with the Americans amounted to selling the country out.
“President Karzai just doesn’t want to own the agreement,” said Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network think-tank. “He kept handing the responsibility for agreeing or not agreeing to the agreement to the people in the hall, to the delegates of the Loya Jirga.”
While the pact is widely expected to pass, several thorny issues, including a US request for jurisdiction over its troops, could hold up a decision. Up to 15,000 foreign troops could remain in Afghanistan after 2014 if the pact is signed.
If the United States pulls out, others are expected to follow suit and a thinner international presence could deter donors from releasing promised funds. After more than 12 years of war, Afghanistan remains largely dependent on foreign aid.
During his speech, Karzai brandished a letter from US President Barack Obama which he said promised the United States would continue to “respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes … just as we do for our citizens.”
Obama said many Americans had died or been seriously wounded in an effort to help and protect Afghan people.
The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and impose their vision of shariah rule, have condemned the Loya Jirga as a farce. Insurgents fired two rockets at the tent where the previous Loya Jirga was held in 2011, but there was no violence on the first day of deliberations.