ISLAMABAD — A bilateral security agreement remains unsigned as a group of U.S. lawmakers visited Afghanistan, calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to announce his plans for future troop levels in the war-torn country.
The bipartisan congressional delegation met with President Hamid Karzai and Afghan lawmakers Saturday and stressed that no American troops would stay in the country beyond 2014 without the security agreement in place.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said Karzai needs to sign the pact quickly to help end uncertainty stemming from his reluctance to do so.
“This agreement that has been negotiated and has been approved by the Loya Jirgas, one that must be signed," she said. "If this agreement is not signed, the United States of America cannot commit to a follow-on force to assist the Afghan forces in the security of Afghanistan.”
She also called on President Obama to announce the number of American troops he wants stationed in Afghanistan after the NATO-led combat mission formally ends in December.
President Karzai has come up with new conditions for concluding the security deal with Washington since the Afghan Loya Jirga approved it in November.
Among other things, Karzai wants the U.S. to help him open peace talks with the Taliban insurgency and press neighboring Pakistan to also play a role in the reconciliation process.
Senator Ayotte said the agreement is between the United States and the Afghan people, and the Taliban cannot be given a say because they are the common enemy and are responsible for murdering Afghan civilians and children.
“Some of the things that President Karzai has said as additional conditions are like moving the goal post," she said. "There is an immediacy to this. We cannot move the goal post anymore.”
A presidential statement issued after the meeting with U.S. lawmakers quoted President Karzai as reiterating that “the long-standing position of the Afghan people towards the security agreement remains unchanged with the preconditions.”
He also dismissed the delegation’s criticism about the release of detainees that Washington insists are dangerous individuals responsible for killing Afghan and coalition soldiers. President Karzai said that relevant judicial and security authorities have recommended the men be released “due to lack of sufficient incriminating evidence.”
The American commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee recently that a residual force of about 8,000 Americans, together with 4,000 NATO soldiers, can comfortably perform the assist and advise role in Afghanistan past 2014. President Obama, however, has yet to disclose the size of the U.S. force.
President Karzai says he will leave the security agreement for his successor to sign after the April 5 presidential elections if there is no progress on his demands. All the candidates, including front-runners, support the bilateral security agreement.
Critics say Karzai’s refusal to sign it can pose a greater challenge for a future president wanting to depart from the established Afghan policy.