A four-day gathering of Afghan elders has ended in Kabul amid confusion over whether President Hamid Karzai will sign a key security deal with the United States.
At the conclusion of the so-called Loya Jirga, Karzai conditioned his signing of the deal on an end to international raids on Afghan homes and cooperation to forge a lasting peace in Afghanistan.
"If they [Americans] once again enter Afghan houses for military operations, there won't be any agreement," Karzai said, to applause from many of the roughly 2,500 delegates on hand.
The Loya Jirga had earlier in the day endorsed a security agreement allowing the United States to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw at the end of 2014.
But the president said Afghanistan needed more time to ensure the United States was committed to peace in the country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) addresses the Loya Jirga on its opening day on November 21 as the council's head, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, listens.
"Peace is our condition with America," Karzai said. "America should bring peace to us, and then we will accept the agreement and will sign it."
Karzai did not say when he would sign the deal. Karzai had said last week the agreement might have to wait to be signed until after Afghanistan's presidential election in April 2014, when he will step down after 12 years as the country's unrivaled leader.
But the man who presided over the Loya Jirga, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, said Karzai had no right to ask delegates to delay the signing and called the president's threat "a mistake and a blunder."
Mojaddedi said the text met all Afghan demands. "Such proposals [for delaying the signing] are against Afghanistan's interest and unacceptable," RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan quoted Mojaddedi as saying.
He added: "[The] president must promise us that he will sign the agreement promptly. God willing, this agreement is good for us. If there is disagreement between the two sides about any part of the deal in the future, [the Loya Jirga] will be held accountable."
The Loya Jirga is a consultative council and has no legal weight. Karzai had convened the assembly to seek its advice on whether or not he should sign the deal.
The Taliban condemned the Loya Jirga's endorsement of the deal, which the militant group dubbed a "pact of slavery."
A spokesman for the militant group, Zabihullah Mujahed, said in a statement that "the Jirga was organized for the benefit of the United States."
The so-called Bilateral Security Agreement could clear the way for the United States to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw at the end of 2014.
Talks between Kabul and Washington had appeared snagged over several issues, including immunity under Afghan law for U.S. troops, nighttime security raids on Afghan homes, assurances from the United States that it would protect Afghanistan from foreign agression, and a possible U.S. apology for "mistakes" during the 12-year conflict.
U.S. officials have expressed an interest in seeing the deal finalized by the end of this year, saying they need sufficient time to plan their operations.
Afghan presidential candidate and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah warned against linking the U.S. security deal with next year's potentially landmark election.
"Linking [the] bilateral security agreement with the elections in itself is dangerous," Abdullah told Reuters. "It is not just risky, it is dangerous and we don't need that."
Based on reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan