The Afghan president has urged tribal elders to support a security deal with the United States that would keep thousands of American troops in the war for another decade.
But, in a surprising about-face, Hamid Karzai said he did not trust the Americans and would defer the signing ceremony to his successor in next year’s presidential elections. That would give more time to test US intentions, he said.
In a last-minute bid to bolster support, President Barack Obama sent a letter promising that the US would continue to respect “Afghan sovereignty” and promised that the US military would not conduct raids on Afghan homes except under “extraordinary circumstances,” involving urgent risks to US nationals. The statement referred to compromises made in the draft text of the agreement.
Mr Obama also said “we look forward to concluding this agreement promptly” in the letter.
Mr Karzai’s statement came in his inaugural speech to the Loya Jirga, a consultative council of elders and other dignitaries who hold the power to force changes or entirely derail the pact. He also read Mr Obama’s letter.
The United States has said it will pull all its forces out Afghanistan without a deal, as it did when Iraq also failed to sign a similar agreement. That would leave the nearly 350,000 Afghan security forces vulnerable as Western military leaders widely acknowledge government troops are not yet ready to take on the Taliban alone despite a strong showing this summer.
Senior US military officials say Afghan forces still need at least three to four years of training and mentoring to face a resilient Taliban insurgency that shows no sign of abating or compromising despite US-backed peace talks.
America’s allies have also said they will not remain without an American presence, which would jeopardise more than eight billion dollars (£5bn) annually to fund the Afghan security forces and help with Afghanistan’s development after 2014.
A signed accord will also mean that about 8,000 US troops could stay in Afghanistan for an additional ten years, which is the duration of the Bilateral Security agreement. Although their main role will be to train and assist, a small number of US forces will continue to hunt al-Qaida members.
America invaded Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States to go after al-Qaida, which was being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
Mr Karzai said the deal would pave the way for 10,000 to 15,000 US troops to stay in the country after the Nato combat mission ends at the end of 2014 and give the United States nine bases around the country that it can use.
US officials have not yet disclosed the number of US troops they want to keep in Afghanistan after 2014. They have said the US and Nato could keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops there.
Mr Karzai’s suggestion to push the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement back until after the April 5 elections could be a deal breaker since the US wants an agreement as soon as possible to allow for preparations to maintain a military presence after 2014, when the majority of foreign combat forces will have left Afghanistan.