KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's president said he backs a security deal with the United States but told a gathering of elders on Thursday that if they and parliament approve the agreement it should be signed after next spring's elections.
Hamid Karzai's abrupt decision to defer signing the agreement until after the April 5 elections came even as he said he supported the Bilateral Security Agreement in a speech to the 2,500-member national consultative council known as the Loya Jirga.
Such a development could be a potential deal breaker as the United States has said it wants an agreement as soon as possible to allow planners in the United States and NATO to prepare for 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 speech that lasted more than one hour.
He said such a move would show America's assurance "that we are moving on the path to security and they are accompanying us on this path."
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 Bilateral Security Agreement.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, Robert Hilton, said he could not comment because it is an ongoing diplomatic discussion.
The Loya Jirga can revise or reject any clause of the draft agreement. Whatever they agree upon then goes to the Afghan parliament, which could make still more changes before the agreement is approved.
The Jirga will hold a series of closed-door meetings until Sunday, when it makes its suggestions on the security deal to Karzai.
On the U.S. side, only the administration of President Barack Obama 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.
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 has in the past made inflammatory remarks only to then change his mind. He signed a strategic partnership with President Obama last year despite criticizing the United States for its military actions in Afghanistan, including night raids against Afghan homes and air strikes that resulted in civilian casualties.
Karzai's 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.
Karzai told the delegates to the Loya Jirga that his decision had to do with the lack of trust between him and the United States.
"It all turns to trust, and between me and American there is not very good trust," he said. "I don't trust them and they don't trust me, the last 10 years has shown this to me. I have had fights with them and they have had propaganda against me."
Karzai said that waiting for the elections would prove America's commitment to Afghanistan's security and safety.
As part of his pitch in favor of the deal, Karzai told the gathering that Obama had assured him in a letter sent Wednesday that any military actions by U.S. forces after 2014 will respect the safety and security of Afghans.
Other contentious issues were resolved in the language, but Karzai told the delegates it was up to them to decide if they approved it.
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.
The pact also provides for U.S. counterterrorism operations in coordination with the Afghans, with the goal that the Afghan forces should be in the lead. It also notes that U.S. troops will not conduct combat operations unless they are "mutually agreed" on by the U.S. and Afghans.
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.
While the agreement allows for a decadelong, if not longer, presence for U.S. troops, they may not be there over that period. The Obama administration has yet to specify how long U.S. troops might actually remain in Afghanistan to complete their training and support mission, and the agreement extends far past Obama's tenure as president.
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.
Rahim Faiez contributed from Kabul.