An assembly of Afghan elders endorsed a crucial security deal yesterday to enable US troops to operate in the country beyond next year, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai left the matter up in the air by refusing to say whether he would sign it into law.
The gathering, known as the Loya Jirga, had been convened by the president to debate the pact, which outlines the legal terms of continued US military presence in Afghanistan. It voted in favor and advised Karzai to sign it promptly.
However, Karzai, in his final remarks to the four-day meeting, said he would not sign it until after a presidential election due in April next year.
“If there is no peace, then this agreement will bring misfortune to Afghanistan,” he said. “Peace is our precondition. America should bring us peace and then we will sign it.”
The president did not elaborate, but has previously said a free and fair vote is needed to guarantee peace in the country and his spokesman later said Karzai had not changed his mind.
Failure to clinch the deal could mean a full US pullout, leaving Afghanistan to fight the Taliban insurgency on its own. US troops have been in Afghanistan since leading a drive to remove the Taliban in late 2001.
US officials, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said the deal must be signed by year-end to begin preparations for a post-2014 presence.
In his remarks, Karzai acknowledged there was little trust between him and US leaders, while saying signing the pact was broadly in Afghanistan’s interests.
Backing from the Jirga, handpicked by his administration, had been widely expected.
Critics say Karzai’s recalcitrance on the date might reflect his desire to distance himself from any deal with the US and avoid speculation that he has sold out to the West.
The deal took a year to bash out and Karzai’s about-face threw the entire process into doubt just hours after both sides announced they had agreed on its terms.
Even in Afghanistan, where some view the security agreement with the US with contempt, many officials were unsettled.
Some believe Karzai is simply concerned that the US and other Western countries may attempt to interfere in next year’s presidential election. Having served two terms, he is ineligible to run again.
By withholding his signature until after the vote, Karzai could also use ratification as leverage to ensure the US does not try to back a candidate not to his liking.
Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, who dropped out of a run-off against Karzai in the 2009 elections, citing concerns about fraud, was among those who shared this suspicion.
“What he is asking for is a guarantee about the elections and most probably his favorite candidate,” Abdullah said.
Karzai accused the international community of meddling during the 2009 election that he won, saying they had tried to encourage Afghans to vote for an opposition candidate.
Others were concerned that Karzai’s reluctance to sign the agreement could jeopardize Afghanistan’s relations with its international allies and its economic future.