Afghan elders endorse U.S. troops’ presence but President Karzai still refuses to sign pact

November 24, 2013

An emotional showdown between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and 2,500 tribal elders here Sunday ended with some — but not all — of what the United States was hoping for.

The elders endorsed an agreement under which the United States will continue to provide advice and training to Afghan security forces, and conduct counterterrorism operations, after the withdrawal of international combat forces at the end of next year. Although President Obama has yet to indicate the size of a potential post-2014 force, most estimates are that it would include up to 10,000 troops.

Delegates said it was in Afghanistan’s “vital national interest” to have a partnership with the United States, and they urged Karzai not to delay the signing of the bilateral security agreement until after the country holds elections in April.

“President Karzai should promise us, he should sign the [agreement] as soon as possible,” said Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the former Afghan president who chaired the four-day gathering, known as a loya jirga. “This agreement will be beneficial for the people.”

But Karzai remained defiant, taking the stage during the final hours of the jirga to repeat that his signature will not come easily — or quickly. Karzai said he wants additional assurances from Washington that the United States will not meddle in the April elections. He also wants the Obama administration to ensure security within Afghanistan and at the same time to promise that a U.S. soldier will never again enter the home of an Afghan citizen in a military operation.

“Peace, security and a transparent election are preconditions for signing,” Karzai declared. “From now onward, Americans don’t have the right to raid our homes. If they raid our homes one more time, there will be no” agreement.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry praised the elders’ decision to endorse the agreement and urged Karzai to sign it before the end of the year.

“I can’t imagine a more compelling affirmation from the Afghan people themselves of their commitment to a long-term partnership with the United States and our international partners,” Kerry said. “The critical next step must be to get the [agreement] signed in short order.”

When he called for the jirga a few months ago, Karzai said he needed to obtain a national consensus about whether U.S. troops were wanted after next year and if so, under what terms. He said repeatedly in recent weeks that the jirga’s vote would heavily influence his decision on whether to forward the agreement to parliament for final approval.

But faced with strong support for the agreement from the jirga, Karzai remained deeply skeptical. His speech to the delegates Sunday was frequently interrupted by elders who urged him to avoid delays in finalizing the accord.

Uncharacteristically, Karzai appeared to abruptly cut off his prepared comments in the face of the outbursts. “On your behalf, I will continue negotiating,” Karzai said as he quickly walked off the stage.

Unlike in his opening address to the jirga last week, Karzai appeared to stop short of directly stating that he won’t sign the agreement until after his successor is chosen in April. That omission is likely to please U.S. officials, who had been looking for an opening to try to get him to move up his timetable.

“We are studying President Karzai’s speech. We continue to believe that signing the agreement as quickly as possible is in the interests of both countries,” said Robert H. Hilton, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

The Obama administration has suggested that there is little room for additional negotiating on the agreement, saying the version now up for consideration was the “final offer.”

But the jirga, whose vote is not binding, set a few conditions before expressing approval of the agreement. Most notably, the elders called for a 10-year time limit on the post-2014 troop presence and said they would seek reparations for damages caused by U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan.

In stark contrast to the jirga delegates’ endorsement of the U.S.-Afghan partnership, Karzai denounced the U.S. government in his remarks Sunday, which were made with U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham in the room.

Karzai said the Obama administration undermined him when it allowed Taliban leaders to establish a temporary office in Doha, Qatar, in June, during an unsuccessful effort by the United States to broker peace talks between the Taliban and Karzai’s government. He accused the Obama administration of interfering in the country’s 2009 elections, which he called an attempt to weaken the Afghan government. And he lashed out at the U.S. military for entering the homes of Afghan civilians.

After Karzai spoke, Mojaddedi pleaded with Karzai to reconsider.

“Mr. President, give us your pledge that you will sign the deal soon,” Mojaddedi said. He added, apparently in jest, that he would have to move out of Afghanistan if there is no long-term security deal with the United States.

Then, in an extraordinary moment in Afghan politics, Karzai returned to the stage so that he and Mojaddedi could briefly debate the matter before the 2,500 delegates and a national television audience.

“They must commit that they will not kill Afghans in their homes,” Karzai insisted, adding, “If they do this, then we will sign.”

As the encounter was ending, Mojaddedi said, “If you don’t sign it, we will be disappointed,” according to an account published by the Associated Press.

“Fine,” Karzai said, as he once again left the stage.

Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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