Hamid Karzai’s refusal to accept the Loya Jirga’s overwhelming approval of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and its request that he sign it in a timely manner puts in doubt the question of whether the US will keep troops in the country after the withdrawal of foreign combat forces in 2014.
Mr Karzai gave the 2,500-member national consultative council a series of conditions, some ill-defined, that he said needed to be met before he signed, including “peace”, the co-operation of the US on the implementation of the Bilateral Security Agreement and fair elections on 5 April.
“We want security, peace and we want a proper election. You have asked me that I should sign it within a month. Do you think that peace will come within a month?” he asked the assembly.
US president Barack Obama’s administration has said it wants a deal signed by the end of the year and warned that planning for a post-2014 military presence may be jeopardised if it is not approved by Mr Karzai.
Mr Karzai’s stance could lead the US to decide it no longer wants to pursue the long-delayed agreement allowing thousands of American soldiers to stay beyond a 2014 deadline. Those forces will primarily train and mentor government security forces who are still struggling to face a resilient Taleban insurgency on their own.
It remains unclear what will happen next and if Mr Karzai will eventually bow to domestic and international pressure to sign the deal by the end of 2013.
The Obama administration has said it will pull all its forces out of Afghanistan without a security deal, as it did when Iraq failed to sign a similar agreement.
“We are studying president Karzai’s speech. We continue to believe that concluding the BSA as quickly as possible is to the benefit of both nations,” US Embassy spokesman Robert Hilton said.
“If I sign it and peace does not come who will be blamed for it by history?” Mr Karzai asked the assembly.
The Loya Jirga has no legal weight and can only recommend to Mr Karzai what he should do. He convened the council to solicit its advice on whether he should sign the agreement or not.
Mr Karzai or his designee would have signed the document after the recommendation of the Loya Jirga and then parliament would have ratified it. After ratification, Mr Karzai would have to again sign the agreement to make it law. Parliament is widely expected to rubber stamp the deal.
Mr Karzai argued Afghanistan needed more time to ensure that the US was committed to peace in the country and stressed that the elections were a key date. He also hinted that if the agreement is signed now, he will lose the influence he needs to ensure that the elections are not the subject of manipulation.
He has in the past accused the US of interfering in the 2009 elections, which he almost lost.
Mr Karzai, often looking angry, argued repeatedly that Afghanistan needed more time.
“We need a period of implementation. We want a period of implementation for peace. Peace is our condition.”
His refusal to commit to signing by the end of the year angered the chairman of the Loya Jirga, former president Sibghatullah Mojaddedi.
“You should sign it, you should sign it for this issue to be over,” Mr Mojaddedi yelled.