U.S. ambassador says onus on Karzai to sign agreement

Calls new demands by Afghan leader unacceptable

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KABUL, Afghanistan — In his first public remarks in the weeklong standoff between the United States and Afghanistan over a post-2014 security agreement, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham challenged President Hamid Karzai to end the bitter stalemate and sign the 10-year pact.

Cunningham told Afghan reporters in the western city of Herat that it was up to Karzai to decide whether the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan's security would extend past the withdrawal of combat troops next year. He indicated that Karzai had imposed unacceptable new demands since agreeing to draft text of the 24-page security pact last week.

The unusually pointed remarks were made Wednesday during a visit to the U.S. consulate in Herat and released Thursday by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Cunningham has been leading the American team in negotiations in Kabul with Karzai's government.

Asked about a "zero option" in which the U.S. would keep no troops in Afghanistan after 2014 and end its longstanding security support, Cunningham put the onus on Karzai.

"Zero is not an option for us," the ambassador told an Afghan reporter. "It could be a consequence of decisions that your government takes or doesn't take."

He added: "The question of withdrawing all of our forces is not really an option for us. It's not something we foresee or want to pursue. … We have a good agreement and we're ready to sign it in the near future."

The United States thought it had a deal with Karzai after a telephone conversation between the Afghan president and Secretary of State John F. Kerry last week. President Barack Obama followed up with a letter pledging that U.S. forces would enter Afghan homes on post-2014 combat missions only under extreme circumstances and when U.S. lives were at risk.

But Karzai infuriated U.S. officials — along with many of his supporters, as well as ordinary Afghans — by making new demands. On Nov. 21, he abruptly refused to sign the deal until after the Afghan presidential election in April.

American officials have said that if the agreement is not signed by the end of this year, Washington and its NATO allies will not have time to plan for a post-2014 troop deployment and military aid while also withdrawing combat troops and equipment.

"There are important practical and political reasons for signing it in the next couple of weeks," Cunningham said. He referred to "important military and budget planning decisions to support our future relationship" with Afghanistan.

In fact, the ambassador said, it was a special grand council convened by Karzai that set the end-of-the-year deadline. The council of influential Afghans, called a loya jirga, voted unanimously Sunday to approve the pact and asked Karzai to sign it by year's end.

Some of the 2,700 council delegates demanded that Karzai sign within days. Karzai made no public comments Thursday in response to Cunningham's remarks.