KABUL, Afghanistan — In a dramatic face-to-face rebuke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a grand council of Afghan dignitaries voted Sunday to approve a proposed 10-year security agreement with the United States by the end of the year, agreeing to an American-imposed deadline.
The white-bearded chairman of the council, known as a loya jirga, told Karzai he miscalculated when the Afghan president demanded a delay in signing the agreement until next spring. Chairman Sibghatullah Mojaddedi lectured Karzai, warning that if he delays signing the agreement, "I'll resign and leave the country.
"If he had listened to my advice, we wouldn't have this problem today," Mojaddedi, 89, a former Afghan president and longtime confidant and mentor to Karzai, said as the president sat stiffly a few paces away.
But Karzai remained adamant that he will not sign the accord until after the Afghan presidential election in April. That stubborn stance has infuriated U.S. officials, who Friday imposed a Dec. 31 deadline.
Karzai asked the council for more time to negotiate with the United States. "We'll try to bargain more with the Americans on your behalf" and then sign the agreement much later, he said.
He asked for a chance to apply more political pressure so Afghanistan doesn't capitulate on the agreement "for free," that is, without forcing American concessions.
"If there is no peace, this agreement will bring misfortune to Afghanistan," Karzai added in a somewhat elliptical reference to the potential impact of the accord.
Karzai did not indicate whether he ultimately will brush aside the loya jirga recommendation and defy the U.S. deadline. The Afghan president is notorious for delaying tactics that seek to extract concessions and keep himself at the center of events, especially as he enters a lame-duck period before his term ends in April.
The loya jirga's bold defiance of Karzai presents an opportunity for the mercurial president to save face and back down on the brinkmanship that has put the security deal in serious jeopardy. Mojaddedi told Karzai bluntly: "If there is a problem in the future" with the agreement, "the jirga is responsible."
Karzai convened the loya jirga, an informal but influential traditional assembly, to give himself political cover and deflect responsibility for signing a long-term commitment with the United States, according to many Afghan analysts. Karzai faces significant opposition from Afghan traditionalists who condemn any cooperation with foreigners, especially the United States.
Karzai remained defiant Sunday, telling the jirga’s 2,700 delegates that American soldiers continue to raid Afghan homes and kill civilians. He dug in his heels over that issue last week, just hours after agreeing with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on the text of the draft 24-page security pact.
President Obama responded with a personal letter to Karzai on Thursday that pledged U.S. troops would enter Afghan homes only in "extraordinary" circumstances and only if American lives were at direct risk.
Mojaddedi confronted Karzai after the president joined him on the stage, firmly reminding him that the U.S. had given written assurances on so-called U.S. night raids. The loya jirga voted to attach Obama's letter to the text of the proposed Bilateral Security Agreement.
"I repeat: The United States cannot enter Afghan homes and kill people," Karzai told the chairman, who turned to face him on the assembly stage. Mojaddedi, gesticulating forcefully, again told the man he called his "son and student" to accept U.S. assurances and sign now, not later.
Karzai muttered, "All right," and abruptly left the stage.
In voting to approve the agreement, the loya jirga said in its formal declaration that Karzai should sign by the end of the year. The council recommended several additions to the pact, among them the release of 19 Afghans from the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay and a stronger U.S. pledge to defend Afghanistan from any incursion from its neighbors, particularly Pakistan.
The loya jirga also voted to request that the U.S. military add a base to the nine bases that would be occupied by U.S. troops under the proposed security pact after combat forces depart Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The base is in Bamian province in central Afghanistan, where the NATO-led military coalition has maintained a presence. Bamian is a population center for Hazaras, a Shiite Muslim minority whose members were massacred by the Taliban prior to the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the militant group. Afghan analysts said Hazara delegates proposed the additional base.
The agreement must still be approved by Afghanistan's elected parliament. Karzai will decide when to present it to the legislature, which is expected to endorse it.
Approval by the loya jirga capped a fraught six-day showdown between Karzai and the United States that began with a phone call negotiation between Karzai and Kerry on Tuesday. It peaked with Washington threatening to leave no troops after 2014 — meaning a drastic cut in billions of dollars in military and development aid sent to Afghanistan.
That threat panicked many ordinary Afghans, as well as wealthy Afghan businessmen. Those concerns were reflected in the loya jirga membership. Most of the 50 loya jirga committee chairpersons who spoke Sunday urged Karzai to sign the pact quickly to avoid a collapse in security at a time when the Taliban insurgency remains potent.
If approved, the agreement would allow the U.S. to deploy military advisors to train and equip Afghan security forces, along with U.S. special-operations troops for counter-terrorism missions against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Obama will determine the size of the force.
Karzai "overreached" and miscalculated the true sentiments of the loya jirga and the Afghan people, Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, said in an interview. He said most Afghans recognize that the country cannot survive without U.S. military and cash assistance, along with the international commitment the post-2014 U.S. presence would bring.
"I don't think President Karzai expected this," Rahmani said. "He won't be able to resist the national will of the Afghan people, as expressed today through the loya jirga."
[For the record, 4:10 p.m., Nov. 24: An earlier version of this post attributed the quote: "I repeat: The United States cannot enter Afghan homes and kill people," to Chairman Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. It was made by President Hamid Karzai.]