KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai urged tribal elders Thursday to approve a security pact with Washington that could keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2024, but he added a wrinkle that he prefers his successor sign the document after elections next April.
Karzai's move could be an attempt to avoid taking personal responsibility for an agreement that many Afghans see as selling out to foreign interests.
His remarks to the 2,500 members of the consultative council known as the Loya Jirga came as President Barack Obama made a personal plea for quick passage of the agreement in a letter promising to respect Afghanistan's sovereignty and only raid homes when U.S. lives are at risk.
The Loya Jirga is widely expected to approve the agreement, and Karzai's remarks could be seen as last-minute move to force the gathering to ask him to sign the long-delayed accord -- thus shifting the responsibility for the deal away from him to the elders.
The White House urged that the security pact be signed by the end of the year, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying a failure to finalize an agreement in the coming weeks "would prevent the United States and our allies from being able to plan for a post-2014 presence" in Afghanistan.
Military leaders in the U.S. and NATO widely acknowledge that the nearly 350,000-member Afghan National Security Forces are not yet ready to take on the Taliban alone after a war that has lasted more than 12 years. The Afghan forces, however, have held their ground this summer after taking control of security around the country from foreign forces.
Senior U.S. military officials have repeatedly stressed that Afghan forces still need at least three to four years of training and mentoring take on a resilient Taliban insurgency that shows no sign of abating or compromising. U.S.-backed attempts to start peace talks with the Taliban have failed so far.
If there is no security deal, the U.S. has said it will pull all its forces out of Afghanistan, as it did when Iraq failed to sign a similar agreement. Washington's allies have also said they will not remain without a U.S. presence, and the exit of all foreign forces would jeopardize the more than $8 billion that has been pledged annually to fund Afghan security forces and help with the country's development after 2014.
A signed accord means that about 8,000 U.S. troops could stay for another 10 years, which is the duration of the Bilateral Security Agreement. Although their main role will be to train and assist the Afghan military and police, a small number of U.S. forces will continue to hunt al-Qaida members.
While the agreement allows for a decade-long, if not longer, presence for U.S. troops, they may not be there over that period. The Obama administration has yet to specify how long U.S. troops might actually remain to complete the training and support mission, and the agreement extends far past Obama's tenure as president.
U.S. officials have not yet disclosed how many troops they want to keep in Afghanistan after 2014. U.S. officials have said the U.S. and NATO could keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops. Of those, the U.S. is expected to provide no more than 8,000.
Asked whether the bilateral security agreement sets up the prospect of U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan for years and years, Secretary of State John Kerry told MSNBC on Thursday that nothing like that was being contemplated.
"Let me push back very clear," Kerry said. "We are not talking about years and years. That is not what is contemplated. It is way shorter than any kind of years and years. It is to help the Afghan military, train, equip -- we will advise -- it is a period of time. But I have no contemplation that I've heard from the president or otherwise about something that is years and years."
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to go after al-Qaida, which was being sheltered by the Taliban. The longest and costliest war in U.S. history has proven deeply unpopular at home and among its allies, and most have said they will not commit any troops after 2014 unless the security deal is signed.
Karzai said the deal would pave the way for 10,000 to 15,000 foreign troops to stay in the country after the NATO combat mission ends at the end of 2014 and give the United States nine bases around the country that it can use.
The Afghan Parliament will also have to agree on the deal after the Loya Jirga, but the lawmakers are expected to rubber-stamp the elders' decision. A previous Loya Jirga overwhelmingly approved the strategic partnership agreement signed by Obama and Karzai in May 2012.
If Karzai carries out his threat to have his elected successor sign the accord, it could be a potential deal-breaker, because the U.S. has said it wants an agreement as soon as possible to allow planners in the Pentagon and NATO to prepare for a military presence after 2014. The U.S. had wanted a deal signed by the end of October.
"If you accept it and Parliament passes it, the agreement should be signed when the election is conducted, properly and with dignity," Karzai said in his speech.
But he left open a loophole, saying he basically made the suggestion to give Afghans more time to consider it. Karzai hinted he was seeking the advice of the Loya Jirga on when a deal should be signed.
"We need some time. If you agree and give me advice to have some time, that would be to our benefit," Karzai said. He did not explicitly rule out signing if the elders asked him to and the Parliament approved.
The Jirga will hold a series of closed-door meetings until Sunday, when it makes its suggestions on the security deal to Karzai.
He also hinted that asking for the deferral could be personal -- that neither he nor the U.S. trust each other and that it would be better if someone else put pen to paper.
"It all turns to trust, and between me and America, there is not very good trust," he said. "I don't trust them and they don't trust me. The last 10 years has shown this to me. I have had fights with them and they have had propaganda against me."
Karzai's mercurial nature was evident before the 2012 signing as well. He had repeatedly criticized the U.S. for its military actions in Afghanistan, including night raids against Afghan homes and airstrikes that resulted in civilian casualties.
But now, all of Karzai's concerns have been resolved in the agreement, and a final issue over whether U.S. forces could enter Afghan homes during raids was addressed by Obama in a letter that was read to the assembly.
In it, Obama assured Karzai that under the agreement, the U.S. will continue to respect "Afghan sovereignty." He also said the U.S. military will not conduct raids on homes -- a particularly sensitive issue for Afghans -- except under "extraordinary circumstances" involving urgent risks to U.S. nationals.
Obama also said in the letter that "we look forward to concluding this agreement promptly."
Many Jirga members said they favored the deal because it ensured Afghanistan's security and development.
Sidiqa Safi, a female teacher from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, said she approved of the agreement "because Afghanistan needs it."
The country's security "will be in a bad situation without the United States," she added. "The situation is getting worse. There are more attacks from the Taliban, and the Afghan forces are not able to protect Afghanistan."