US Ambassador to Afghanistan visits Herat

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Blair Cunningham, left, and the governor of Herat province, Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi, at a joint news conference in Herat, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. (Jalil Rezayee / EPA / November 27, 2013)

KABUL, Afghanistan — In his first public remarks in the weeklong standoff between the United States and Afghanistan over a post-2014 security agreement, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham challenged President Hamid Karzai to end the bitter stalemate and sign the 10-year pact.

Cunningham told Afghan reporters in the western city of Herat that it was up to Karzai to decide whether the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s security would extend past the withdrawal of combat troops next year. He indicated that Karzai had imposed unacceptable new demands since agreeing to draft text of the 24-page security pact last week.

The unusually pointed remarks were made Wednesday during a visit to the U.S. consulate in Herat and released Thursday by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Cunningham has been leading the American team in negotiations in Kabul with Karzai’s government.

Asked about a "zero option" in which the U.S. would keep no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 and end its longstanding security support, Cunningham put the onus on Karzai.

"Zero is not an option for us," the ambassador told an Afghan reporter. "It could be a consequence of decisions that your government takes or doesn’t take."

He added: "The question of withdrawing all of our forces is not really an option for us. It’s not something we forsee or want to pursue .... We have a good agreement and we’re ready to sign it in the near future."

The United States thought it had a deal with Karzai after a telephone conversation between the Afghan president and Secretary of State John F. Kerry last week. President Obama followed up with a letter pledging that U.S. forces would enter Afghan homes on post-2014 combat missions only under extreme circumstances and when U.S. lives were at risk.

But Karzai infuriated U.S. officials -- along with many of his own supporters, as well as ordinary Afghans -- by making new demands. On Nov. 21, he abruptly refused to sign the deal until after the Afghan presidential election in April.

American officials have said that if the agreement is not signed by the end of this year, Washington and its NATO allies will not have time to plan for a post-2014 troop deployment and military aid while also withdrawing combat troops and equipment.

"There are important practical and political reasons for signing it in the next couple of weeks," Cunningham said. He referred to "important military and budget planning decisions to support our future relationship" with Afghanistan.

In fact, the ambassador said, it was a special grand council convened by Karzai that set the end-of-the-year deadline. The council of influential Afghans, called a loya jirga, voted unanimously Sunday to approve the pact and asked Karzai to sign it by year’s end.

Some of the 2,700 council delegates demanded that Karzai sign within days. The loya jirga chairman, former President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, 89, Karzai’s mentor and informal advisor, upbraided Karzai for defying the will of the Afghan people and putting the nation’s security at risk.

Karzai made no public comments Thursday in response to Cunningham’s remarks. His spokesman, Aimal Faizi, did not immediately respond to a request by The Times for comment.

In a Pashto-language interview Tuesday with Radio Free Europe, Karzai said he was ready to sign if the U.S. met his demands, including an immediate halt to U.S. forces entering Afghan homes on combat missions.

"Another condition is peace in Afghanistan," Karzai said without elaborating. "If we don’t have peace, this agreement will turn into a disaster for Afghanistan instead of a blessing."

He added: "It is up to the Americans whether they want to stay or go."

The agreement’s collapse would end the U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan after 2014 and deprive struggling Afghan security forces of vital training, equipment, weapons and logistical assistance. It would almost certainly end any post-2014 commitment by NATO forces. The billions of dollars spent on reconstruciton by the U.S. and international allies also would likely be significantly reduced.

Afghan military commanders have acknowledged that they cannot hold off a determined Taliban insurgency without U.S. backing. Afghanistan’s business community has panicked over the prospect of losing foreign aid that props up the country’s feeble economy, which otherwise relies on small-scale agriculture and the multimillion-dollar opium harvest.

Many Afghan politicians and former members of Karzai’s government are in open revolt, demanding that Karzai sign the deal immediately. Some have publicly questioned his state of mind and accused the president of cynically putting the nation’s security at risk for personal political aggrandizement.

Many ordinary Afghans also have openly condemned Karzai. They warn that failure to sign the deal could lead to a Taliban takeover or another civil war.