U.S., Afghanistan in stare-down over security pact

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KABUL -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai will continue to defy U.S. threats to walk away from a security agreement between the two countries and plans to reiterate in a speech to a grand council today that he will not sign it before spring, his spokesman said Saturday.

"They have waited this long, they can certainly wait five more months," spokesman Aimal Faizi said Saturday of the Americans. The Obama administration has characterized the deal, whose terms Mr. Karzai agreed to last week, as a "final offer" that must be completed by the end of this year.

Mr. Karzai appears certain the administration is bluffing, saying through the spokesman that he does not believe the United States will resort to the "zero option" of canceling plans to leave a residual troop force here to train the Afghan military and continue counterterrorism operations after it withdraws its combat forces in December 2014.

But the administration, for its part, has also thought Mr. Karzai would change his tune after opening the assembly of more than 2,500 tribal elders and other leaders, called a loya jirga, Thursday with a speech vowing to delay finalizing the deal until after Afghanistan's presidential election in April.

The tension has escalated into a remarkable stare-down between two leaders who say they want the same thing -- U.S. troops providing long-term training and support for the Afghan military -- but find themselves on the brink of walking away from that partnership.

"The core of the issue," Mr. Faizi said, is a "lack of trust" between the two governments.

As the elaborate game of diplomatic chicken neared a climax, the Obama administration was publicly silent Saturday, while continuing talks in private.

U.S. officials in Washington said they were heartened by statements coming out of the loya jirga, where some members seemed to "understand the importance of signing sooner rather than later," a senior administration official who was not authorized to discuss the tense situation said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The officials pointed in particular to a statement Saturday by Sebghattulah Mojaddidi, the chairman of the loya jirga, who told Afghanistan's Tolonews that he hopes Mr. Karzai will avoid a showdown with the Americans over the timetable, saying it would harm Afghanistan.

"If the U.S. has accepted our terms, then we should not delay," Mr. Mojaddidi said.

Some jirga members, however, have spoken out in opposition to particular portions of the deal, including a grant of immunity from Afghan legal prosecution for U.S. troops.

In recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have signaled that the administration has little patience for a continued delay or for any substantive changes in the document. Mr. Faizi described a telephone conversation Friday between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Kerry as "friendly but tense," and said that Mr. Kerry had threatened a complete withdrawal.

Administration officials consider the signing date to be nonnegotiable, citing the need for at least a year to plan future deployments and to allow coalition partners including Germany and Italy to plan for a residual troop presence they have offered.

Having drawn a line in the sand after a year of negotiations, the administration is also highly reluctant to suffer a repeat of the diplomatic embarrassment that ensued when a similar deal with Iraq went to the wire before ending with a total U.S. military withdrawal at the end of 2011.

While U.S. officials have publicly portrayed the current draft agreement as written in stone, officials said the administration is willing to consider small changes based on loya jirga concerns, if that will move the assembly to press Mr. Karzai to sign.

Mr. Faizi said Saturday that Mr. Karzai is also seeking additional "guarantees" that the administration won't interfere in the coming elections, that it will help stabilize security in Afghanistan and that remaining U.S. forces won't abuse their power to enter the homes of Afghans.

"There should be flexibility on two sides," he said.

Meanwhile, outside the confines of the jirga, fresh tension arose between the two governments for a second consecutive day over the deaths of two Afghans this week.

On Friday, Mr. Karzai accused U.S. troops of killing the two men, whom he described as civilians, in an operation in the eastern province of Nangahar. Coalition military commanders responded with outrage, saying the men were "armed insurgents."

"It's really unfortunate some people are using allegations of civilian casualties for political purposes," said a senior coalition official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely. The official, who noted that the mission in question was led by 100 Afghan soldiers but included 17 coalition advisers, said Mr. Karzai's remarks were ""complicating" efforts to maintain U.S. military support for the security agreement.



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