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One Step Forward, One Step Back On U.S.-Afghan Security Deal

The scene in Kabul outside the traditional Afghan grand assembly, known as a Loya Jirga, convened to debate matters of national importance.
Just when it appeared that a contentious security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States was all wrapped up, it hit yet another snag.

The Loya Jirga, a traditional gathering of Afghan elders tasked with deciding whether U.S. troops will be allowed to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, approved the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) after four days of debate.

That endorsement was supposed to clear the last major hurdle for the agreement to be ratified by parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai.

But the outgoing president, who in turning to the Loya Jirga to determine the people's will had vowed to abide by its recommendation, surprisingly threw cold water on the deal.

Karzai essentially ignored the Loya Jirga's recommendation to sign the deal by the end of the year. Instead, the president laid out a new set of conditions that he said Washington must fulfill before he signs on.

Waliullah Rahmani, the director of the Kabul-based Center for Strategic Studies, says the deal is still expected to go through. But in keeping with the erratic nature of the protracted negotiations between the two sides, he says, it's a case of one step forward, one step back.

"We are in a really unclear situation right now from the Afghan side," Rahmani says. "It is President Karzai who has the final say on the BSA so it makes the situation more risky. Politics in Afghanistan is not really transparent and it is unpredictable. So we don't know what’s going to happen next."

ALSO READ: Afghan Loya Jirga Endorses Security Pact With U.S., But Karzai Demurs

Karzai, speaking at the conclusion of the gathering on November 24, argued that Afghanistan needs more time to ensure that the United States is committed to peace and stability in the country.

"We want security, peace, and we want a proper election," he said, speaking about presidential polls set for April. "You have asked me that I should sign it within a month. Do you think that peace will come within a month?"

WATCH: Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeared at the conclusion of the Loya Jirga to insist on additional conditions before he would sign the security pact with the United States:
Karzai Sets Conditions On Signing Security Pact
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Karzai -- who has been Afghanistan's dominant political figure since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and has served as president since a Loya Jirga made him an interim president in 2002 -- made clear that his legacy was at stake.

"If I sign it and peace does not come, who will be blamed for it by history?" he asked the 2,500 or so delegates at the Loya Jirga. "If I sign it today and tomorrow we don't have peace, who would be blamed by history? So that is why I am asking for guarantees."

Karzai did not give an explicit timeline, but he has previously said he could delay his signing of the agreement until after the April election that will determine his successor. Such a scenario would exasperate Washington, which wants a deal sealed by the end of this year.

Rahmani, however, says the delay suits the interests of Karzai, who he believes is trying to win as many concessions as he can from Washington while still in power.

In his address to the gathering, Karzai made reference to several guarantees he has sought from Washington.

Karzai wants a U.S. pledge that it will not interfere in the upcoming election. After the 2009 election, which was marred by massive voter fraud, Karzai accused Washington of meddling. Karzai eventually won reelection that year, but only after his rival Abdullah Abdullah curiously stepped down on the eve of the second round of voting.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul, suggests that Karzai could be trying to gain leverage ahead of the election.

Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking another term in office. But his brother, Qayum Karzai, is running.

"Karzai is afraid the Americans will [meddle] in the election against his interests," Ruttig says. "Partly, he has a point. The Americans have [meddled] in elections in Afghanistan earlier on" -- mainly in Karzai’s favor, according to Ruttig, although Washington has dismissed such accusations. "Karzai has not forgotten that the Obama team, during its first election campaign [in 2008], openly spoke about having Karzai replaced."

Karzai also appears to have backtracked on a recent agreement with Washington over controversial U.S. raids on Afghan homes.

U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to Karzai on November 20 reassuring him that U.S. forces would only raid Afghan properties under "extraordinary" circumstances.

Karzai initially appeared to be satisfied with Obama's pledge, but on the final day of the Loya Jirga the Afghan president declared that any U.S. raids on Afghan homes would result in a nullification of the security agreement.

And in another turn, the Afghan president sought U.S. "cooperation" regarding Kabul's fledgling peace process with the Taliban.

Karzai has previously indicated he wants Washington to pressure Pakistan into supporting an Afghan-led peace process. The Taliban has thus far refused to talk to Kabul, and a U.S.-backed Taliban office in Qatar intended to facilitate peace talks was shut down after protests from Karzai.

Ruttig says Karzai might be trying to force Washington's hand.

"Apparently, Karzai assumes that the Americans continue talking to the Taliban. From that, he draws the conclusion that they should help him start his own talks with the Taliban before the elections," Ruttig says. "He wants to delay his signature of the agreement until he sees whether the Americans are delivering on that or not."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.