President Hamid Karzai told his countrymen on Thursday a vital security pact with the United States should not be signed until after Afghanistan's presidential election next April, prompting the White House to underscore its demand for a year-end deadline.
Karzai's surprise move, which came just a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the pact's language had been agreed upon, suddenly threw its future into question and seemed certain to reignite tensions with Washington.
The Afghan leader spoke to about 2,500 tribal elders and political leaders from across Afghanistan gathered in the capital for a Loya Jirga, or grand council, to debate whether to allow U.S. troops to stay after the planned 2014 drawdown of foreign forces.
Without an accord on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), the United States says it could pull out all its troops at the end of 2014 and leave Afghan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency on their own.
In a statement certain to irritate the United States, which is eager to clinch the deal as soon as possible, Karzai told the assembly any agreement on the status of U.S. forces would have to wait until after a presidential election in April.
"This pact should be signed when the election has already taken place, properly and with dignity," Karzai, who cannot run in the 2014 vote under the constitution, told the elders.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama wants the security pact approved and signed by Afghanistan's government by the end of this year.
"We hope that they will move quickly to approve the text of that agreement," Earnest told reporters.
Putting pressure on Karzai to change course, Earnest said Obama will decide about the enduring American presence in Afghanistan after the Afghan government approves the security deal.
While Obama has not yet determined whether a U.S. troop presence will continue after 2014, any deployment would involve only a "few thousand troops," Earnest said.
U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001.
A senior Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Karzai intended to leave the pact unsigned until he is sure the international community will not interfere in the election. Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, confirmed that, adding that the grand assembly and parliament also had to approve the pact.
"Once we are assured of peace and security, and transparent elections, then President Karzai will sign this pact after the election if this is approved by the Loya Jirga and passed by the parliament," Faizi said.
He did not explain how Karzai intended to sign the document after a new president had been elected.
Karzai has appeared wary of being too closely associated with the security agreement, which would formally invite foreign forces to stay in Afghanistan.
"President Karzai just doesn't want to own the agreement," said Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network think tank. "He kept handing the responsibility for agreeing or not agreeing to the agreement to the people in the hall, to the delegates of the Loya Jirga."
Karzai and the U.S. government have had a tense relationship. U.S. officials express frustration with his frequent about-faces and occasional denunciations of the U.S.-led NATO force helping Afghanistan fight Taliban militants.
U.S. missteps, including the killing of Afghan civilians, have put Karzai in a difficult political spot.
Karzai told the assembly on Thursday that he broadly supported the security pact but said there was little trust between him and U.S. officials.
"My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them and they don't trust me," Karzai said. "During the past 10 years I have fought with them and they have made propaganda against me."
Karzai has told Washington that if both countries are unable to agree on the document, the issue could be taken up again after the next election.
Over the next four days, delegates to the Loya Jirga will debate the draft and decide whether they want U.S. troops to stay.
Karzai called the assembly to muster public support for a pact regarded by many Afghans with contempt. As he spoke about U.S. assurances, a female senator leapt up to interrupt him, shouting that any deal with the Americans amounted to selling the country out.
While the pact is widely expected to pass, several thorny issues, including U.S. insistence on legal jurisdiction over its own troops, could hold up a decision.
If the United States pulls out, others are expected to follow suit. A thinner international presence could deter donors from releasing promised funds. After more than 12 years of war, Afghanistan remains largely dependent on foreign aid.
During his speech, Karzai brandished a letter from Obama which he said promised the United States would continue to "respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes ... just as we do for our citizens."
Obama said many Americans had died or been seriously wounded in an effort to help and protect Afghan people.
The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and impose their vision of Islamist rule, have condemned the Loya Jirga as a farce. Insurgents fired two rockets at the tent where the previous Loya Jirga was held in 2011, but there was no violence on the first day of deliberations.