In a surprising about-face, however, Hamid Karzai said he didn't trust the Americans and would defer the signing ceremony to his successor in next year's presidential elections. That would give more time to test U.S. intentions, he said.
In a last-minute bid to bolster support, President Barack Obama sent a letter promising that the U.S. will continue to respect "Afghan sovereignty" and promised that the U.S. military will not conduct raids on Afghan homes except under "extraordinary circumstances," involving urgent risks to U.S. nationals. The statement referred to compromises made in the draft text of the agreement.
Obama also said "we look forward to concluding this agreement promptly" in the letter.
Karzai's statement came in his inaugural speech to the Loya Jirga, a consultative council of elders and other dignitaries who hold the power to force changes or entirely derail the pact. He also read Obama's letter.
The United States has said it will pull all its forces out Afghanistan without a deal, as it did when Iraq also failed to sign a similar agreement. That would leave the nearly 350,000 Afghan security forces vulnerable as Western military leaders widely acknowledge government troops are not yet ready to take on the Taliban alone despite a strong showing this summer.
Senior U.S. military officials say Afghan forces still need at least three to four years of training and mentoring to face a resilient Taliban insurgency that shows no sign of abating or compromising despite U.S.-backed peace talks.
America's allies have also said they will not remain without an American presence, which would jeopardize more than $8 billion annually to fund the Afghan security forces and help with Afghanistan's development after 2014.
A signed accord will also mean that about 8,000 U.S. troops could stay in Afghanistan for an additional 10 years, which is the duration of the Bilateral Security agreement. Although their main role will be to train and assist, a small number of U.S. forces will continue to hunt al-Qaida members.
America invaded Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States to go after al-Qaida, which was being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban. But the longest and costliest war in U.S. history has proven deeply unpopular at home and among America's allies.
Karzai said the deal would pave the way for 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to stay in the country after the NATO combat mission ends at the end of 2014 and give the United States nine bases around the country that it can use.
U.S. officials have not yet disclosed the number of U.S. troops they want to keep in Afghanistan after 2014. U.S. officials have said the U.S. and NATO could keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops there. Of those, the U.S. is expected to provide no more than 8,000.
Karzai's suggestion to push the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement until after the April 5 elections could be a deal breaker since the U.S. wants an agreement as soon as possible to allow for preparations to maintain a military presence after 2014, when the majority of foreign combat forces will have left Afghanistan. The U.S. had wanted a deal signed by the end of October.
"If you accept it and Parliament passes it, the agreement should be signed when the election is conducted, properly and with dignity," Karzai said toward the end of a more than hour-long speech.
It was unclear if the mercurial Karzai would indeed wait for the elections or sign the agreement if approved by the Loya Jirga and the parliament. He could also be waiting for the Jirga to ask him to sign it.
Karzai has in the past made inflammatory remarks only to then change his mind. He signed a strategic partnership with Obama last year despite criticizing the United States for its military actions in Afghanistan, including night raids against Afghan homes and airstrikes that resulted in civilian casualties.
His reticence to sign could also be attributed to his awareness that previous leaders of his country historically have been punished if seen as selling out to foreign interests.
Government officials and the president's office were not immediately available to comment on the unforeseen development, which came just a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he and Karzai had agreed on the language of the pact.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Robert Hilton said he could not comment because it is an ongoing diplomatic discussion.
The Loya Jirga will hold a series of closed-door meetings until Sunday, when it makes its suggestions on the security deal to Karzai. Its decisions are influential but not binding, and the deal must still be approved by the Afghan parliament, which could ask for more changes.
On the U.S. side, only Obama's administration needs to approve the agreement, but it could reject changes made by Afghan officials. If it does, that leaves open the option for the U.S. to pull all troops out of Afghanistan. The same could happen if the deal is not signed in a timely manner.
Such was the case in Iraq, when the U.S. and Iraq couldn't agree on terms of a security arrangement. Sectarian violence has plagued Iraq since, and some fear Afghanistan could follow that path without a continued U.S. presence if Afghan forces cannot defend the country themselves.
According to a draft agreement posted on the website of Karzai's office, the agreement gives the U.S. legal jurisdiction over troops and Defense Department civilians, while contractors would be subject to the Afghan judicial process. Deep divisions in Afghanistan over legal immunity for American soldiers and contractors as well as night raids had threatened to scuttle diplomatic efforts.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed from Kabul.
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