President Hamid Karzai urges Afghanistan's tribal elders
to let foreign troops stay

Decision by Afghan leader to defer signing of the deal is likely to anger Washington

Kabul and New York

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has urged tribal elders gathered in Kabul to ratify a security pact with Washington that would allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to remain on bases across the country until 2024; but he unexpectedly proposed that it should be signed only after next spring’s presidential election.

The uneasy allies have spent months discussing whether a reduced foreign presence would remain in Afghanistan after coalition combat troops pull out by the end of next year, or whether Afghan security forces would have to face the insurgency alone.

Mr Karzai finally accepted the outline of the pact, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, after receiving a letter this week from President Barack Obama with a guarantee that the US would continue to respect “Afghan sovereignty” and that American soldiers would not raid Afghan homes except under “extraordinary circumstances,” where US nationals might be at risk.

There had been suggestions, notably from Afghan officials, that the letter – passages of which were shared by Mr Karzai with the tribal assembly, or Loya Jirga – would include some form of apology for America’s “past mistakes” during a decade of operations in Afghanistan. That was not the case, however. Rather Mr Obama said that “we look forward to concluding this agreement promptly”.

That Mr Karzai chose to defer the signing of the deal until after the election, scheduled for 5 April, is likely to irritate Washington, as are some of his remarks at the Loya Jirga about distrust between him and the White House. “The past ten years have shown the Americans don’t trust me, and I don’t trust them,” he declared.

“I have always criticised them and they have always propagated negative things behind my back. If you approve this agreement, I want [it] signed after the presidential elections. If you agree to sign this agreement… we will ask for some time.”

Washington, which is familiar with Mr Karzai’s sometimes mercurial if not adversarial ways, has made clear its desire to finalise the agreement this month so that it can start planning a year ahead for the non-combat mission in the country. The urgency is also felt by Nato, which is waiting to negotiate its own status-of-forces agreement once the BSA sets the terms.

At the Loya Jirga, attended by 2,500 elders, Mr Karzai said the deal offered Afghanistan its best chance of stability. Without it, Kabul could struggle to hold key pieces of territory as its security forces are not able yet to stand on their own. Not only that, but the international community might reconsider its financial commitment to a country where the security situation remains uncertain.

In his 70-minute address, Mr Karzai also spoke of immunity, noting that the US would retain “exclusive rights” to try its soldiers accused of alleged crimes in Afghanistan. The issue has generated much enmity, especially since 2012 when Robert Bales, a staff sergeant, killed 16 Afghan villagers, nine of them children, and was flown home without trial. He later received a life sentence from a US court.

In Iraq, where the issue of immunity was also hotly debated, Baghdad’s refusal to extend the clause resulted in the complete withdrawal of all US troops in December 2011. Today, many of its cities still boil with sectarian violence. Kabul has expressed consistent fears that without a long-term security pact, Afghanistan could face a similar fate.

The city has been in lock-down since Tuesday to accommodate the Loya Jirga, which lasts four more days.

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