x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Afghanistan’s Karzai rejects elders’ advice to back US deal quickly

Assembly of Afghan elders endorses security deal to enable US troops to operate in the country beyond next year.

KABUL // An assembly of Afghan elders endorsed a security deal on Sunday to enable US troops to operate in the country beyond next year, but the president, Hamid Karzai, refused to say if he would sign it into law.

The gathering, known as the Loya Jirga, had been convened by the president to debate the pact which outlines the legal terms of continued US military presence in Afghanistan. It voted in favour and advised Mr Karzai to sign it before the end of the year.

But Mr Karzai, in his final remarks to the four-day meeting, said he would not sign it until after a presidential election due next April.

“If there is no peace, then this agreement will bring misfortune to Afghanistan,” he said. “Peace is our precondition. America should bring us peace and then we will sign it.”

The president did not elaborate, but has previously said a free and fair vote is needed to guarantee peace in the country.

As the meeting ended, the assembly chairman Sibghatullah Mojeddedi told Mr Karzai: “If you don’t sign it, we will be disappointed.”

Mr Karzai shouted “Fine,” and left the stage.

Failure to clinch the deal could mean a full US pullout, leaving Afghanistan to fight the Taliban insurgency on its own. US troops have been in Afghanistan since leading a drive to remove the Taliban in late 2001.

US officials said the deal must be signed by year-end to begin preparations for a post-2014 presence.

In his remarks, Mr Karzai acknowledged there was little trust between him and US leaders while saying signing the pact was broadly in Afghanistan’s interests. Backing from the Jirga, hand-picked by his administration, had been widely expected.

Most speakers were muted in their criticism of the thorniest issues in the document, including a US request for immunity for its troops from Afghan law.

Critics say Mr Karzai’s recalcitrance on the date might reflect his desire to distance himself from any deal with the United States and avoid speculation that he has sold out to the West.

A former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said Mr Karzai is known to use 11th-hour demands to press for concessions from the United States during negotiations.

“He has to be the one ... to sign off on this loss of Afghan sovereignty. He knows intellectually that this is in Afghanistan’s interest, but at the same time it’s distasteful to him.”

* Reuters