The US national security advisor is to meet President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, officials said Monday, as Washington presses Afghanistan to quickly approve a deal to allow some US forces to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Karzai has hedged on when he will sign the deal despite a four-day “loya jirga” assembly of 2,500 tribal elders and politicians endorsing it and urging him to sign it promptly.
Opening the assembly in Kabul on Thursday, Karzai exasperated Washington by saying he wanted to delay signing the deal until after the successful completion of April’s presidential election.
The bilateral security agreement (BSA) will permit some US soldiers to remain after the end of 2014 when most of NATO’s 75,000 troops pull out.
Supporters say the BSA is vital for the period after 2014 because the Afghan government remains fragile despite 12 years of war against Taliban insurgents.
US national security advisor Susan Rice’s trip to Afghanistan, which began on Saturday but was kept under wraps, was “long-planned”, an official said.
But the meeting with Karzai was added to Rice’s itinerary at his request, National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell told AFP.
The US embassy in Kabul said the meeting would take place Monday night.
Karzai said on Sunday he would “continue bargaining” on the BSA, which was hammered out just in time for the jirga after months of difficult negotiations with Washington.
Karzai gave no further clue as to when he would ink the deal and imposed new conditions, including US “cooperation” in efforts to make peace with the Taliban.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the assembly’s vote was a “compelling affirmation from the Afghan people themselves of their commitment to a long-term partnership with the United States”.
“Very significantly, the loya jirga also urged that the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) should be signed before the end of the year,” he said.
The Taliban, who before the assembly had threatened to target delegates if they backed the agreement, condemned the pact.
The “illegal and insignificant pact of slavery with America will neither benefit the American invaders nor criminal slaves”, they said in a statement referring to the jirga members.
After four days of discussions under tight security, jirga delegates anxious to conclude the deal with Afghanistan’s main financial and military partner said in their closing statement that Karzai should sign before the end of 2013.
‘No more home raids’
Karzai also appeared to toughen his stance on US military raids on Afghan homes, a sensitive topic that threatened to derail the deal last week.
“If the US goes into Afghan homes one more time, there will be no agreement,” he said.
In the days before the jirga his spokesman said Kabul and Washington had agreed to allow US raids, albeit only in “exceptional circumstances” in which the lives of US troops were in danger.
That wording was echoed in a letter from President Barack Obama to Karzai though it did not appear in the draft BSA text released by Kabul on the eve of the jirga.
Kate Clark, senior analyst with the Afghan Analysts Network, said Karzai may be genuinely concerned about what happens once the Americans have the BSA.
“As Karzai said on the first day of the jirga, there is no trust between them. He does not believe their assurances,” she wrote on the AAN website.
“He wants to hold on to some form of leverage, as, in his mind, this is the only way to force the US to refrain from stomping over Afghan sovereignty.”
The pact must be approved by the Afghan parliament before it can go into effect. But the question of when it would be signed has largely overshadowed discussions of its content in recent days.
The US State Department warned that failure promptly to sign the pact could jeopardise billions of dollars in vital aid to the war-torn country.
The White House has said it needs a swift decision to start planning the movement of US troops, and warned that Obama had not yet decided whether to keep any American forces in Afghanistan at all beyond 2014.
A draft text of the BSA released by Kabul last week appeared to show Karzai had bowed to a US demand that American troops would remain exempt from Afghan jurisdiction if they are accused of crimes.
Rice’s visit to Afghanistan, her first trip abroad as national security advisor, will also include meetings with US troops, development experts and diplomats