Afghan President Hamid Karzai has surprised many by refusing to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement between his country and the United States that had received cautious approval from tribal leaders and the nation's elders after a loya jirga meeting in Kabul concluded on Sunday.
In the speech explaining his decision, Karzai said he wants more progress towards a peace agreement with the Taliban and assurances that U.S. soldiers will discontinue their abuse of the Afghan people by ending night raids on homes. Though the U.S. has demanded the deal be signed by the end of this year, Karzai said he wants to wait until after the next presidential elections, sheduled for April.
As the Associated Press reports:
Although the mercurial leader did not fully spell out his reasons for deferring its signature until after the April 5 elections, the move was a slap in the face to U.S. officials who had repeatedly asked for a deal by the end of the year.
The U.S. administration has insisted the deal be finalized by the end of next month, warning that planning for a post-2014 military presence may be jeopardized if it is not approved. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel both asked last week that it be signed by the end of the year.
Failure to do so could be the final blow to the Bilateral Security Agreement, leaving the Americans without a legal basis to keep forces in the country for up to a decade to train and mentor Afghan troops who remain ill-prepared to face a persistent Taliban insurgency.
The U.S. has said it will pull all its forces out of Afghanistan without it, as it did when Iraq failed to sign a similar agreement. Most of America's allies have also said they will pull out their troops in without the deal, a withdrawal that could put at risk more than $8 billion a year pledged by the international community for Afghan security forces and the country's development.
And the Guardian adds:
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The agreement will allow US soldiers to stay on at nine bases, mentoring the still ill-equipped and patchily trained Afghan police and army, and pursuing al-Qaida and linked groups.
It is politically sensitive for many reasons, not least because it undermines Afghanistan's reputation as the "graveyard of empires", with the ignominious withdrawal of Soviet forces referenced several times in jirga speeches on Sunday.
But without a deal, the US is unlikely to part with the $4bn (£2.50bn) a year needed to pay the Afghan army, or provide the helicopters and other equipment promised.
Many Afghans feel that the imperfect deal is the only protection they have against powerful neighbours. One of Karzai's security advisers warned parliament that without the agreement the country would be isolated "among wolves", and his military chief asked opponents of the deal to say where else they would come up with police and army funding.
At the end of the Loya Jirga, which has no legally binding powers, a string of delegates came up to the podium to commend the deal, some to ask for small changes, but the majority to urge Karzai to sign the agreement by the end of year.
Karzai chose to ignore those requests, warning his audience that "Afghanistan has always won the war but lost in politics". He added that he planned to carry on with negotiations because the US had broken previous commitments to protect the country and support the peace process.
"Lack of trust is the core of the problem," his spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said before the speech, adding that Karzai thought American officials were bluffing when they warned of a total pullout by the US. "We don't believe there is a zero option," he said.