KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan president Hamid Karzai said the United States should bring peace to his country before he would sign a security deal enabling American troops to stay beyond 2014, despite calls by an assembly of tribal elders to agree to the pact.
"If there is no peace then this agreement will bring misfortune to Afghanistan," Karzai said on Sunday in his closing remarks to the Loya Jirga assembly of elders and dignitaries convened to decide on the security pact. "Peace is our precondition. America should bring us peace and then we will sign it."
The president did not elaborate, but has previously said that a free and fair election is needed to guarantee peace in the country. Reuters reported that none of the 2,500 delegates at the assembly, or Loya Jirga, had objected to signing the deal.
As the meeting came to a close, assembly chairman Sibghatullah Mojeddedi told Karzai: “If you don’t sign it, we will be disappointed.” In response, Karzai said, “Fine!” and left the stage.
The Loya Jirga was convened to decide on the pact, but Karzai cast the entire process in doubt by saying he would refuse to sign it until after a presidential election scheduled for April 2014. The United States has repeatedly said it cannot wait beyond the end of this year.
American troops would remain in Afghanistan primarily to train and mentor government security forces struggling to face a resilient Taliban insurgency on their own. U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since spearheading a campaign to oust the Taliban in late 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Top U.S. officials — including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said the agreement must be signed by the end of the year to start plans for a post-2014 presence in the Middle Eastern country.
Kerry said in a statement that the assembly’s endorsement was a “compelling affirmation” and called on leaders to sign the deal in “short order.”
In a statement, U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham said he was gratified that the assembly “overwhelmingly offered support for the Bilateral Security Agreement and asked President Karzai to sign it by the end of next month.”
“Today's decision by the Jirga endorses Afghanistan's continued security cooperation with the United States and our international partners.”
In his remarks Sunday, Karzai recognized that there was scant trust between him and U.S. leaders while saying that putting his signature on the pact was broadly in Afghanistan’s interest. Endorsement from the Jirda, selected by his administration, had been expected.
The majority of speakers were subdued in their criticism of the most complex issues in the document — including a U.S. request for immunity for its troops from Afghan law.
Critics say Karzai’s reluctance may be a product of his bid to distance himself from any pact with Americans and sidestep speculation that he has capitulated to the West.
A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, told Reuters that Karzai is notorious for using last-minute demands to press for concessions from the U.S. amid 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," Neumann said.
Even some Afghan officials who detest the security deal were alarmed by Karzai’s move, according to Reuters. Some critics hold that Karzai is strictly concerned that the U.S. and other Western powers may try to meddle in next year’s presidential contest. With two terms under his belt, Karzai is ineligible to mount another candidacy.
And by withholding his signature until after the vote, Karzai could also use ratification as a bargaining chip to guarantee the U.S. does not attempt to support a candidate he doesn’t favor.
Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, who dropped out of a run-off against Karzai in the 2009 contest, on account of concerns about electoral fraud, was among those who expressed this suspicion to Reuters.
"What he is asking for is a guarantee about the elections and most probably his favorite candidate," Abdullah told the wire service.
And others were worried that Karzai’s recalcitrance could endanger Afghanistan's ties with its international allies — and its economic future.
"If we keep talking about signing the agreement after the election, we will lose our biggest ally," Freshta Amini, an lawmaker from southwestern Nimroz province, told Reuters.
Meanwhile, others Loya Jirda members backed Karzai’s comment about postponing ratification.
"If the Americans want to sign this pact with Afghanistan, then they should also respect our demands for a transparent election, and peace and security in the country," said Farid Alokozai, provincial council chief in Wardak, just outside Kabul.
At least one cabinet minister with close ties to Karzai said several members of the president’s team were displeased with his decision.
"There are people who want this pact to be signed immediately after the Loya Jirga. But there are spoilers too, who have a lot of influence over the president,” the unidentified minister told Reuters.
NBC News' Daniel Arkin, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published November 24 2013, 1:36 PM