WASHINGTON – The United States said Thursday that Afghanistan should sign a new security pact as soon as possible but warned it had not yet decided on a post-2014 troop presence.
Washington was pushing back, in the latest sign of perpetual tension with Kabul, after President Hamid Karzai said he would not sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), reached after painstaking negotiations, until after elections next year.
“We must move forward as quickly as possible to sign the agreement,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “We have been very clear about the need to conclude this by the end of the year.”
The White House said it needs a swift decision from Karzai to start planning the footprint of forces to combat terrorism and to train Afghan forces after NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
“Failure to get this approved and signed by the end of the year would prevent the United States and our allies from being able to plan for a post-2014 presence,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. “That’s not the kind of thing that you can decide in December of 2014.”
Karzai said the BSA would allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to stay in the war-torn country.
But Earnest, apparently trying to exert leverage for a swift signature on the BSA, said President Barack Obama has not made up his mind on a post-2014 plan.
“We have not yet determined whether or not a troop presence will continue in Afghanistan,” Earnest said.
Karzai earlier said the pact, currently under consideration by a Loya Jirga, a meeting of tribal chieftains, could only be signed “when our elections are conducted, correctly and with dignity.”
Afghanistan goes to the polls on April 5 to elect a successor to Karzai, who must step down after two terms. A credible election is seen as crucial to the country’s future stability.
The path to Karzai agreeing the terms of the BSA was smoothed by a letter from Obama that confirmed an agreement announced by Afghan officials Tuesday over the vexed question of U.S. forces raiding people’s homes.
The letter released by Karzai’s office said U.S. forces would not enter Afghan homes for military operations “except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals.”
The issue is a sensitive one in Afghanistan and had for a time appeared to pose a serious threat to the deal.
If the Jirga approves the BSA, it still must be passed by the Afghan parliament.
It has been touted as vital after 2014, when the bulk of NATO’s 75,000 troops will pull out. The Taliban insurgency this year has reached levels of violence not seen since 2010, according to the United Nations.
The deal will see 10,000 to 15,000 foreign troops remain in Afghanistan after NATO pulls out the bulk of its forces by the end of next year, Karzai said.
And he gave a brutal assessment of his often thorny relationship with Washington, his principal foreign backer.
“America does not trust me and I do not trust them. I have had struggles with them and they have spread propaganda against me,” Karzai said.
The Taliban condemned the Jirga as an American plot and threatened to target its delegates if they approve the deal.
Last week a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb near the Jirga area, killing 12 people.
A draft text released by Kabul late Wednesday appeared to show Karzai had bowed to a U.S. demand that American troops would not be tried in local courts if they are accused of crimes.
A similar security deal between the United States and Iraq collapsed in 2011 over the issue of whether American troops would be answerable to local courts, leading Washington to pull its forces out.
But the text, published on the Afghan Foreign Ministry website, said Kabul had agreed that the United States should have “the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction” over its forces.
It adds the deal will remain in force “until the end of 2024 and beyond,” unless either side ends it.
But Earnest said that doesn’t mean that U.S. troops would be in the war-torn nation until then.
“It wouldn’t take that long,” Earnest said.