With the clock ticking down to an end-of-year deadline for a U.S.-Afghan security agreement, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Monday failed to persuade recalcitrant Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the pact, according to Afghan and U.S. accounts of the meeting.
Karzai refused Sunday to heed the vote of a 2,500-member national assembly advising him to conclude the deal that would keep several thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan to train national military and police forces after U.S. troops withdraw next year.
The decision by the assembly of tribal elders and regional leaders, known as a loya jirga, urged Karzai to meet the year-end deadline to ensure the flow of $8 billion in promised U.S. aid and continued help in defending Afghanistan against resurgent Taliban militants.
"Ambassador Rice conveyed to President Karzai that the United States welcomes the loya jirga's overwhelming endorsement of the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and is prepared to sign the agreement in the coming days," a White House statement said.
In response, the White House reported, "President Karzai outlined new conditions for signing the agreement and indicated he is not prepared to sign the BSA promptly."
Rice, on a three-day visit billed as a show of the Obama administration's appreciation to U.S. troops and civilians working in Afghanistan, impressed on Karzai that deferring conclusion of the agreement until after an April presidential election was "not viable."
The Pentagon has been stressing for months that it needs the security pact in place by the end of this year to give planners time to draft deployment schedules and to secure funding for all post-2014 operations.
Rice reiterated to Karzai that failure to conclude the agreement this year would jeopardize security in Afghanistan during the upcoming election campaign, as well as put in doubt billions in aid promised at donors conferences last year in Chicago and Tokyo, the White House statement said.
"Ambassador Rice reiterated that, without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan," the statement said.
The International Security Assistance Force has 75,000 troops in Afghanistan, 48,000 of them from the United States. All are scheduled to leave next year when the agreement between Afghanistan and NATO expires.
The frank account of the meeting was in line with one emailed to news agencies in Kabul by Karzai's office. In it, Karzai repeated his intention to defer signing to the next Afghan president. He also said conclusion of the agreement was contingent on U.S. assurances that there would be a "complete cessation" of foreign troops' entering private Afghan homes, Bloomberg reported.
U.S. military efforts to track down and detain extremists often involve surprise, late-night raids on homes where militants are suspected to be hiding with relatives or friends.
The report on Karzai's meeting with Rice added a new condition not mentioned in the White House statement: that the U.S. release Afghan prisoners from the detention center for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
More than 100 Afghan captives from the U.S.-proclaimed war on terror were held at Guantanamo at the height of the military detention site's operations nearly a decade ago. Most have been repatriated to the custody of the Afghan government, but some remain at the offshore prison at the U.S. Navy base because they are defined as too dangerous to release despite the absence of formal charges against them.
The loya jirga also sought the release of the Afghans at Guantanamo, and said there were 19 of them.
It was unclear from the terse White House account of the Karzai-Rice meeting what would be the next step by Washington in its frustrated attempt to conclude the security agreement in the less than six weeks remaining this year.