KABUL — An angry President Hamid Karzai, at times openly hostile to his US allies, on Sunday rejected the final recommendation of a four-day Afghan grand assembly that he should promptly sign a security agreement with the United States.
Even though he had convened the assembly, or loya jirga, to ratify his decision to sign the agreement, Karzai told the assembled elders that he would do so only after further negotiations.
He also demanded that US forces cease raids on Afghan homes immediately, saying he would nullify any bilateral security agreement if there was even one more such raid.
In practical terms, that would mean an end to the last remaining combat missions being carried out by US troops on a regular basis: raids by elite units aimed at capturing high-profile insurgents.
“From this moment on, America’s searching of houses, blocking of roads and streets, military operations are over, and our people are free in their country,” Karzai said, his voice filled with emotion.
“If Americans raid a house again, then this agreement will not be signed,” he said, with the US ambassador, James B. Cunningham, in the audience.
Equally worrisome for US policy makers was that the Afghan president appeared to insist on putting off signing the security agreement until after Afghan elections in April; the United States has insisted that an agreement needs to be signed by the end of this year to give US and NATO forces time to plan for a new phase in Afghanistan after the combat mission concludes at the end of 2014.
Western diplomats warned that Karzai was playing a risky game of brinkmanship.
“He’s definitely pushed too far,” one diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the dispute. “There’s a general consensus that he’s overestimated the importance to the Americans of the agreement and is thinking that they must have it at all costs. The Americans internally are very clear: that it’s not a vital strategic interest, and he doesn’t get that.”
A prominent Afghan opposition leader, Abdullah Abdullah, said: “I have no doubt in my mind there are politicians thinking back in the US about the zero option” — a complete US military withdrawal — “and this will further strengthen their argument. There’s a possibility that will backfire and the price will be paid by the people of Afghanistan.”
Karzai’s own loya jirga on Sunday endorsed the wording of the agreement and approved a resolution calling on the president to sign it by the end of this year. But its decisions were not legally binding, and Karzai made it clear he was not ready to sign soon.
“On your behalf we will try to bargain more with the Americans and then we will sign this agreement,” Karzai told the jirga.
“Give me a chance to do politics and don’t give this agreement for free to the Americans,” he said, adding that he would sign it “once we are sure we are on the path of peace and Afghanistan has a new president.”
The jirga ended on a dramatic note when its organizer, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, a longtime Karzai ally, took the podium after Karzai’s speech and threatened that if the bilateral security agreement was not signed in three days, “I will resign all my positions and seek refuge in another country.” Karzai then returned to the podium and angrily insisted, “America cannot kill anyone in their homes.”
A spokesman for the US Embassy, Robert Hilton, said officials were still studying Karzai’s remarks and the jirga’s recommendations on the security agreement.
“We continue to believe it should be concluded as quickly as possible and that is in the interest of both nations,” he said.
Karzai said he intended to reopen negotiations over the security agreement, adding three broad conditions before it would be signed: an immediate end to raids on Afghan homes, good-faith efforts by the Americans to promote the peace process, and their assurance of “transparency” in the elections.
Referring to his talks with Secretary of State John Kerry, Karzai told jirga delegates that “he asked me to sign it in one month, but how can peace be restored in one month?”
“I will sign it and there will be no guarantee of peace and I will be blamed for everything in history,” he said.
Making peace a condition for signing an agreement on a long-term US military presence seemed to be setting an impossibly high bar. US and Afghan efforts to start peace talks with the Taliban have faltered repeatedly, although Afghan officials have expressed suspicion that the Americans are not putting enough pressure on other players, such as the Pakistanis, who give the Taliban sanctuary.
Similarly, Americans are not involved in preparations for Afghan elections, but Karzai’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said the president was concerned that the Americans might interfere in the process.
In addition, Karzai’s demand to end home raids immediately goes far beyond what was negotiated in the security agreement, which bans them beginning in 2015, except in extraordinary circumstances to save American lives.
Many observers saw the Afghan president’s move as a high-stakes gamble.
“I think Karzai can very easily miscalculate,” a Western official said. “Likewise, the US could too, and so there is uncertainty all around. Emotions are running high, and we need to try and not be as emotional as Karzai during this critical time.”