An assembly of Afghan elders endorsed on Sunday a security deal to enable U.S. troops to operate in the country beyond next year, but President Hamid Karzai left the matter up in the air by refusing to say whether he would sign it into law.
The gathering, known as the Loya Jirga, had been convened by the president to debate the pact. It voted in favour and advised Karzai to sign it promptly.
But Karzai, in his final remarks to the four-day meeting, appeared to stand by his earlier position that he would not sign until after a presidential election due next April. Washington has insisted it must be clinched by the end of the year.
"If there is no peace, then this agreement will bring misfortune to Afghanistan," Karzai told the gathering, "Peace is our precondition. America should bring us peace and then we will sign it."
The president did not elaborate, but has previously said that a free and fair election is needed to guarantee peace in the country.
The chairman of the assembly, Sibghatullah Mojeddedi, told Karzai as the meeting was closing: "If you don't sign it, we will be disappointed."
The president responded "Fine!" and left the stage.
Karzai shocked the U.S. administration when the meeting opened on Thursday by insisting that the document could only be signed "properly and with dignity" after the election. Having served two terms he is ineligible to run again.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, responded by saying the deal must be signed by year-end to begin preparations for a post-2014 military presence. Failure to clinch the deal could mean a full U.S. pullout.
Karzai has acknowledged during the assembly that there is little trust between him and U.S. leaders and he renewed his criticism of Washington in his closing speech.
But he has also said signing the pact is in the national interest and backing from the Loya Jirga, handpicked by his administration, had been widely expected.
Critics have suggested his recalcitrance on the date might reflect Karzai's desire to distance himself from any deal with the United States.
Other speakers were also muted in their criticism of the thorniest issues in the document, including a U.S. request for immunity for its troops from Afghan law.