KABUL , Afghanistan - Afghanistan's president on Wednesday softened some of his demands on a security agreement with the United States governing the future of American troops in the country- even as concerns grew among Afghans and the country's military, which would be hard hit if his failure to sign leads to a U.S. withdrawal.
However, President Hamid Karzai still refused to commit to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement before the end of the year, a timeline that Washington says must be met to give time to prepare for American troops to remain in the country after 2014, when most foreign forces are set to withdraw.
Karzai's reluctance to finalize the pact has perplexed many in Afghans - especially those in its military - after a national gathering convened at his request demanded he sign it.
In an interview broadcast Wednesday by Radio Free Europe, Karzai said he would sign the deal if America meets demands to not raid Afghan homes and help restart peace talks with the Taliban.
"Whenever the Americans meet these two demands of mine, I am ready to sign the agreement," Karzai said in the interview to the U.S.-funded station.
He appears to have taken a small step back on his demand that the U.S. guarantee free and fair presidential elections on April 5 following assurances he received during a Monday meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
"They have assured me about this," Karzai said of the elections. "But I will see what happens."
A two-time president, Karzai is barred from seeking a third five-year term. His brother however is a candidate.
Karzai has accused the United States of meddling in the 2009 elections. They were marred by fraud, but most observers that the bulk of it was on Karzai's behalf.
He also introduced new demands, including the possible release of 19 Afghan prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Rice told Karzai the United States will plan to pull all troops out of his country after 2014 if he doesn't promptly sign. In addition to the loss of American troops to train and mentor U.S. force, Rice said a U.S. pullout would endanger more than $8 billion in annual funds for Afghanistan's security forces and in development assistance.
His reluctance to sign has perplexed Afghans and foreign analysts alike, as well as members of the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security forces who fear they will have difficulties fighting the Taliban without American support. The United States and its allies not only train and equip the force, but pay all the salaries.
"I hope President Karzai signs because the Afghan nation wants it and 2,500 Afghans gathered in Kabul and approved signing it," said Brigadier General Aminullha Patyani, who runs the sprawling Kabul Military Training Center on the outskirts of the capital. "It's too early for the United States to leave Afghanistan."
The Afghan security forces took over security for the country last summer and managed to hold their own against the Taliban. The U.S. government has spent more than $20 billion in recent years to train the Afghans, money that will be wasted if the Afghan forces have no funds to pay their salaries.
But senior U.S. and NATO commanders said they still need training and more equipment to be able to retain superiority. Since the handover, foreign forces are no longer fighting but training and assisting.
They are also withdrawing.
There are now just 46,000 American troops along with 26,000 from NATO and other allies. By February U.S. troops will be down to 34,000 for a total of about 50,000, compared to almost 150,000 last year.
There have been various explanations for Karzai's reluctance, ranging from his belief the U.S. is bluffing about the so-called zero option, to becoming a lame duck if he gives up leverage, to fears about how history will view a president who agreed to have foreign troops in Afghanistan.
"He doesn't believe in the zero option and so the threat of complete US withdrawal is for him an empty threat. So he feels quite comfortable pushing the US for more," said Kate Clark, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network. She added Karzai feels genuinely concerned that, if the deal is signed, "the Americans will go back to their old ways, as he sees it - raids on homes and killing civilians, meddling in the elections. Of course, he also loses a lot of personal power if Afghanistan's future becomes more settled."
Violence continued despite the debate.
Militants killed six Afghans working for the French-based aid organization ACTED Wednesday in Afghanistan's northern province of Faryab, Governor Mohammadullha Batash and the agency said.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.