Afghan President Hamid Karzai is pushing ahead with a call to delay signing a new security pact with the U.S. until after Afghanistan's April elections, although the U.S. insists the pact must be signed by the end of the year.
Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi told news agencies Saturday the Afghan leader will close the grand assembly currently evaluating the agreement with a speech Sunday explaining why he wants the document signed after the elections.
The dispute has overshadowed the four-day meeting of tribal, community and elected leaders, known as a Loya Jirga. The Jirga must approve the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA. Following that, the Afghan parliament must approve the agreement before the president can sign it.
On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told VOA's Afghan Service that failing to conclude the pact this year is "not an option" the U.S. is considering. The Obama administration is pressing the Afghan government to sign the agreement or face the prospect of no U.S. troops remaining in the country beyond 2014 when U.S.-led NATO combat troops withdraw.
Most of the 2,500 local and regional leaders participating in the Jirga are believed to favor the deal, which spells out terms under which international forces will remain in Afghanistan to assist the government in its war against Taliban insurgents.
U.S. officials were stunned Thursday when Mr. Karzai suggested that the formal signing of the pact should be put off until the middle of next year, when he will be out of office.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest stressed the importance of having the agreement signed this year so that long-term planning can begin. He said the United States has not made a final decision on whether to keep troops in Afghanistan.
But Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said Friday the Afghan government is not impressed by U.S. deadlines.
Mr. Karzai opened the assembly Thursday with an impassioned speech in support of the pact, saying it has the backing of Afghanistan's major allies and neighbors except Iran.
The deal is to take effect January 1, 2015, and will keep U.S. troops and civilian personnel in Afghanistan for at least another decade and possibly even longer.
During his speech, Mr. Karzai read out parts of a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama that promised the United States will continue to "respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes" under the new security agreement. Mr. Karzai has reportedly called for an end to military operations on Afghan homes as a condition for signing the pact. He is also reported to want U.S. cooperation in the peace process with the Taliban and in guaranteeing transparent elections.
A draft text of the agreement said U.S. troops will only enter Afghan homes in exceptional cases -- a point of contention in nearly a year of negotiations on the agreement.
Mr. Obama's letter, released by the Afghan government, also said many Americans have died or been seriously wounded in an effort to help and protect the Afghan people.