KABUL — Efforts by the United States and Afghanistan to finalize a long-term security arrangement appeared on the brink of collapse Monday as Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a new set of demands, and the Obama administration said it would be forced to begin planning for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2014.
In a two-hour meeting here, Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s top national security adviser, told Karzai that if he failed to sign the bilateral security agreement by the end of this year, the United States would have “no choice” but to prepare for withdrawal, according to a statement by the National Security Council in Washington.
Karzai told Rice that he would sign only after the United States helps his government begin peace talks with the Taliban and agrees to release all 17 Afghan citizens being held in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
In addition to those new demands, the Afghan leader reiterated that he will not sign if “another [U.S.] soldier steps foot into an Afghan home,” Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said. The United States has already promised to show “restraint” in “home entries” by U.S. troops and to carry them out only in conjunction with Afghan troops, but the tactic remains a part of U.S. operations against some insurgents here.
If Rice’s unannounced visit to Afghanistan, her first solo trip abroad in office, was designed to convince Karzai that the Obama administration was not bluffing about a complete withdrawal, it did not appear to work. Instead, Karzai doubled down on the position he staked out Thursday, when he shocked both U.S. officials and an assembly of Afghan elders called to approve the deal by saying that he would not sign it until his growing list of demands was met.
The agreement, completed last week after year-long negotiations, outlines the conditions for a
follow-on presence of U.S. troops to train and advise the Afghan military and to conduct counterterrorism operations after the Americans and their NATO partners withdraw all combat troops by the end of next year. The administration has said it must be signed before the end of this year if U.S. and NATO planning for post-2014 deployments are to be completed.
On Sunday — despite endorsement of the deal by the assembly, called a loya jirga — Karzai repeated his refusal to sign until after the presidential election here in April. U.S. officials have said they believed that Karzai was bluffing.
But “the president said, ‘Madame Rice, the ball is in your court,’ ” Faizi said. “The president said, ‘If you are under the impression the [agreement] will be signed without a peace process, and without a total ban on raids of Afghan homes, this is a serious miscalculation.’ ”
Although couched in far more diplomatic language, the National Security Council statement was equally tough, saying that Rice “stressed that we have concluded negotiations and that deferring the signature of the agreement until after next year’s elections is not viable.” It said she “reiterated that, without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.”
Failure to sign, Rice told Karzai, would jeopardize not only the $4 billion annually in international pledges to fund the Afghan military after 2014, but also an additional $4 billion that has been promised for Afghan economic development.
A senior U.S. official in Washington, who was not authorized to discuss the sensitive matter on the record, said the Obama administration was deeply frustrated by Karzai’s new demands. “We can continue to disagree, but at the end of the day, we are the ones who have the troops,” the official said.
“He can insist he has new conditions. But we’ve got a plan,” the official said, referring to the agreement.
In his Sunday speech to the loya jirga, Karzai also accused the U.S. government of seeking to undermine him and the election, and he said he needed additional assurances. Faizi said that Rice stressed during the meeting that the administration has “no favored candidate in that election” and is “strongly committed to not interfering with it.”
“That was a commitment that was made in very strong terms and very strong words, and that clearly satisfied the president,” Faizi said. But when the conversation shifted to other matters, he said, it became more tense.
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, and James B. Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, accompanied Rice to the meeting.
According to Faizi, Dunford said he has instructed all U.S. commanders in Afghanistan to take “all necessary measures” to try to avoid civilian casualties in military missions.
Karzai plans to closely scrutinize U.S. military behavior over the coming weeks, Faizi said.
“We need a change in U.S. behavior, so [Karzai] said, ‘Give us Afghans time to see a change in behavior,’ ” Faizi said.
Faizi said Cunningham strongly objected to Karzai’s demand for the release of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. But Karzai noted that the members of the loya jirga had also called for such a release, the spokesman said.
The spokesman said the release of the Afghan prisoners is a vital step toward launching a peace process with Taliban militants.
Karzai is also expecting the U.S. government to work with Pakistan’s government to start those talks, the spokesman said.
“He strongly believes Afghan peace is firmly in the hands of the United States first, and secondly in the hands of Pakistan,” Faizi said.
Some militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan are thought to be based in Pakistan.Karzai is deeply suspicious of Pakistan and believes that the United States holds tremendous leverage over the country’s leaders.
Over the summer, U.S. officials worked with Pakistani leaders to try to arrange peace talks between Karzai’s government and Taliban leaders in Qatar. After the Taliban leaders hoisted their group’s banner at their hotel in Doha, Karzai vowed not to attend.
DeYoung reported from Washington.