Total US troop pull-out raised as Afghan leader balks at security pact
Karzai's refusal to sign security pact raises prospect of all Western troops going next year
Reuters in Kabul and Washington
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a security deal with the United States, the White House said, and Washington may have to resort to the "zero option" of withdrawing all American troops from the strife-torn country next year, as it did in Iraq.
Karzai told US National Security Adviser Susan Rice in Kabul on Monday that the United States must put an immediate end to military raids on Afghan homes and demonstrate its commitment to peace talks before he would sign a bilateral security pact.
The White House said Karzai had outlined new conditions in the meeting with Rice and "indicated he is not prepared to sign the [bilateral security agreement] promptly".
"Without a prompt signature, the US would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no US or Nato troop presence in Afghanistan," a White House statement quoted Rice as saying.
On Sunday, an assembly of Afghan elders endorsed the security pact, but Karzai suggested he might not sign it until after national elections next spring.
The impasse strengthens questions about whether any US and Nato troops will remain after the end of next year in Afghanistan, which faces a still-potent insurgency waged by Taliban militants and is still training its own military.
US troops have been in Afghanistan since leading multinational forces in ousting the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Just over two years ago, US President Barack Obama pulled the plug on talks with Iraq about keeping a residual American force there after that war. In October 2011, when he announced that decision, there were more than 40,000 troops in the country. By the end of the year, they had all been withdrawn.
There are still 47,000 American troops in Afghanistan. The United States has been in discussions with Afghan officials about keeping a small residual force of about 8,000 troops there after it winds down operations next year.
US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said the bilateral security deal with Afghanistan must be signed by year-end to begin preparations for a post-2014 presence.
Rice, who made a three-day visit to Afghanistan to visit US troops, told Karzai it was "not viable" to defer signing the deal until after the election, the White House said.
Karzai spokesman Aimal Faizi said the Afghan leader laid out several conditions for his signature to the deal in the meeting, including a US pledge to immediately halt all military raids on, or searches of, Afghan homes.
The bilateral security agreement includes a provision allowing raids in exceptional circumstances - when an American life is directly under threat - but it would not take effect until 2015.
"It is vitally important that there is no more killing of Afghan civilians by US forces and Afghans want to see this practically," Faizi said.
Karzai also called on Washington to send remaining Afghan detainees at the US military detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, back to Afghanistan.
He said that the loya jirga, the assembly of elders and leaders that convened last week to debate the deal, had endorsed the pact with this condition.