KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai stood before thousands of Afghan leaders on Thursday in a watershed moment for his tumultuous rule. Having just come to agreement with U.S. leaders on a security deal that would commit the two countries to a lasting military alliance — and would surely define his legacy — he convened the assembly that would decide the deal’s fate.
And then, in what has become a signature move, he hit the brakes.
After a speech in which he bluntly described his relationship with the U.S. as one of mutual distrust, he told the gathering, known as a loya jirga, that even if it approved the deal, he would wait until after the April presidential elections to sign it.
The declaration, which surprised both U.S. and Afghan officials, instantly put at risk a U.S. deadline to have an agreement signed by year’s end. And it served notice that even with his leadership set to expire next year, Karzai intended for the United States to continue working through him at every turn until then.
The ploy is not without danger for Karzai. As U.S. officials’ exasperation with him has intensified, they have increasingly noted the possibility that no U.S. troops — and by extension, no international funding — would be left after 2014.
They did so again Thursday. In a White House background briefing, administration officials said they were seeking a clarification of Karzai’s intent, and suggested that leaving the deal’s completion until next spring would make it impossible to keep any U.S. forces there.
The officials also emphasized that Karzai had agreed to a one-year timetable when the two countries began negotiating the security agreement last November.
Karzai’s brinkmanship is also creating anxiety within his own government. The military and police establishments, in particular, have urgently pushed to finalize the deal because it would ensure training and heavy international funding for the Afghan security forces.
Still, officials noted on Thursday that there was nothing to keep Karzai from changing his mind again if the loya jirga were to approve the security agreement by its close on Sunday. And if anything, Karzai’s statements seemed of a piece with a series of negotiation moves that seemed calculated to squeeze every last U.S. concession out of the process — though each usually ended in Afghan compliance.
Earlier this month, the issue of U.S. soldiers being granted immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts was highlighted by Afghan officials as a potential deal breaker — until it was not. On Sunday, the Afghans drew a line in the sand about U.S. forces searching Afghan homes, a demand that also largely fell by the wayside. And a public statement Tuesday from a Karzai spokesman saying that the Americans were prepared to essentially apologize for past mistakes during the war turned into an embarrassment for the Karzai administration when two senior administration officials denied that there was an apology in the works.