Afghan leader's demands put pact at risk

Obama adviser tells Karzai U.S. would pull out all troops

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- Efforts by the United State and Afghanistan to finalize a long-term security arrangement appeared on the brink of collapse Monday, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a new set of demands, and the Obama administration said it would be forced to begin planning for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces at the end of 2014.

In a two-hour meeting in Kabul, Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's top national security adviser, told Mr. Karzai that if he failed to sign the bilateral security agreement by the end of this year, the United States would have "no choice" but withdrawal, according to a statement by the National Security Council in Washington.

Mr. Karzai told Ms. Rice that he would sign only after the United States helps his government begin peace talks with the Taliban, and agrees to release all 17 Afghan citizens being held in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Besides those new demands, the Afghan leader also reiterated that he will not sign if "another [U.S.] soldier steps foot into an Afghan home," Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said. The United States has already promised to show "restraint" in so-called "home entries" by U.S. troops and to carry them out only in conjunction with Afghan troops, but the tactic remains a principal part of U.S. operations against insurgents in the country.

If Ms. Rice's unannounced visit to Afghanistan, her first solo trip abroad in office, was designed to convince Mr. Karzai that the Obama administration was not bluffing about a complete withdrawal, it did not appear to work. Instead, he doubled down on the position he staked out Thursday, when he shocked both U.S. officials and an assembly of Afghan elders called to approve the deal by saying he would not sign it until his growing list of demands was met.

The agreement, completed last week after year-long negotiations, outlines the conditions for a follow-on presence of U.S. troops to train and advise the Afghan military, and conduct counter terrorism operations, after the U.S. military and its NATO partners withdraw all combat troops by the end of next year. The administration has said it must be signed before the end of this year if U.S. and NATO plans for post-2014 deployments are to be completed.

On Sunday -- despite endorsement of the deal by the assembly, called a loya jirga -- Mr. Karzai repeated his refusal to sign until after the Afghan presidential elections in April. U.S. officials have said they believed that Mr. Karzai was bluffing and jockeying for position as the election approaches.

But "the president said, 'Madame Rice, the ball is in your court,' " Mr. Faizi said. "The president said, 'If you are under the impression the [agreement] will be signed without a peace process, and without a total ban on raids of Afghan homes, this is a serious miscalculation.'"

Although written in far more diplomatic language, the NSC statement was equally tough, saying Ms. Rice "stressed that we have concluded negotiations, and that deferring the signature of the agreement until after next year's elections is not viable," and that she "reiterated that, without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan."

Failure to sign, Ms. Rice told Mr. Karzai, would also jeopardize not only the $4 billion in international pledges to fund the Afghan military after 2014, but also an additional $4 billion that has been pledged for Afghan economic development.

In his Sunday speech to the loya jirga, Mr. Karzai also accused the U.S. government of seeking to undermine him and the elections, and said he needed additional assurances. Mr. Faizi said Ms. Rice stressed during the meeting that the administration has "no favored candidate in that election," and was "strongly committed to not interfering with it."

"That was a commitment that was made in very strong terms and very strong words, and that clearly satisfied the president," Mr. Faizi said. But when the conversation shifted to other matters, he said, it became more tense.

Gen . Joseph Dunford, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, and James Cunningham, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, accompanied Ms. Rice to the meeting.

According to Mr. Faizi, Gen. Dunford said he has instructed all U.S. commanders in Afghanistan to take "all necessary measures" to try to avoid civilian casualties in military missions. Mr. Faizi said Gen. Cunningham strongly objected to Mr. Karzai's demand for the release of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, calling the proposal unrealistic. But Mr. Karzai noted that the members of loya jirga had also called for such a release, the spokesman said.

"The president said you can't pick and choose" which provisions from the assembly to accept, Mr. Faizi said. He said the release of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay is a vital step to launching a peace process with Taliban militants.



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