KABUL — A mass gathering of Afghan tribal leaders and politicians here was expected by many to be grudge match between them and the United States over plans to keep thousands of U.S. troops in the country after 2014.
Instead, it ended Sunday as a showdown between those delegates and the man who summoned them to Kabul: Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
After four days of deliberations, the 2,500 members at the gathering, known as a loya jirga, endorsed an agreement that allows the Obama administration to keep 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw next year. Although their recommendation is non-binding, the jirga set a few conditions, most notably calling for a 10-year time limit as well as seeking reparations for damages caused by American troops.
But the delegates said it was in Afghanistan’s “vital national interest” to have a partnership with the United State. And in a demonstration of that support, a majority of the delegates rebelled against Karzai’s plan to delay the signing of the agreement until after the country holds elections in April.
“President Karzai should promise us, he should sign the [bilateral security agreement] as soon as possible,” said Sibghatullah Mojadidi, the chairman of the jirga and a former Afghan president. “I have education, I know sharia [Islamic] law, and I think this agreement will be beneficial for the people.”
But Karzai remained defiant Sunday, taking the stage during the final hours of the jirga to repeat his signature will not come easily – or quickly.
Karzai said he wants additional assurances from Washington that the U.S. will not meddle in the upcoming elections. He also wants the Obama administration to ensure security within Afghanistan and promise that a U.S. soldier will never again enter the home of an Afghan citizen.
“Peace, security and a transparent election, are pre-conditions for signing,” Karzai said. “If peace doesn’t come, elections go wrong, then we will lose the country.”
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 under what terms. In recent weeks, he has stressed the jirga will heavily influence his decision on whether to forward the agreement to parliament for final approval.
Now in apparent conflict with those comments, Karzai was frequently interrupted by delegates who objected to delaying the matter
Uncharacteristically, Karzai then appeared to abruptly cut off his prepared comments.
“On your behalf, I will continue negotiating,” Karzai said as he quickly walked off stage.
In recent days, the Obama administration has suggested there is little room for additional negotiating, saying the agreement now up for consideration was the “final offer.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and White House spokesman Jay Carney have said they want the agreement finalized by the end of the year, which would give the Pentagon time to prepare for its post 2014-mission.