By Julie Pace
WASHINGTON: The White House is dropping its insistence that Afghanistan sign a crucial security pact within weeks, suggesting it could be willing to wait to see whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s successor might be easier to work with in deciding how many U.S. and international troops remain in Afghanistan when combat concludes at the end of the year.
Karzai further exacerbated tensions with Washington on Thursday by releasing 65 accused militants from a former U.S. prison near Kabul. The American military angrily denounced the move, saying the men are Taliban fighters who will likely return to the battlefield to kill coalition and Afghan forces.
Even before the prisoner release, a U.S. official said the White House has not ruled out waiting until after Afghanistan’s April elections to see if a new leader will finalize the bilateral security agreement Karzai stubbornly refuses to sign. The official said President Barack Obama has not yet decided whether to wait that long, adding that doing so comes with increased risks and complications for the U.S. military.
American-led combat operations in Afghanistan will end on Dec. 31, but the United States is seeking to keep up to 10,000 troops on the ground for counterterrorism and training missions. But without a signed security agreement setting conditions for the American forces, the White House has said it will remove all U.S. troops at the end of the year.
The White House had hoped Karzai would sign the bilateral security agreement by the end of last year. When that deadline passed, administration officials repeatedly said a deal needed to be signed within “weeks, not months.”
But Obama administration officials quietly backed away from that timetable this week. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said only that the United States wanted the agreement to be signed “promptly” — a purposeful change in rhetoric, the U.S. official said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also avoided putting a specific timetable on finalizing the agreement, saying Thursday that the U.S. position was simply that “it needs to be signed soon.”
Karzai’s refusal to sign the security pact, along with his increasingly anti-American rhetoric, has strained relations with the Obama administration. During remarks Thursday on the prisoner release, Karzai accused the U.S. of “harassing” the Afghan judiciary by criticizing the release and said Washington must respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty.
Karzai had long demanded that the United States turn over the Parwan Detention Facility to Afghan authorities, a process completed last March after lengthy negotiations that centered on American concerns that some of the most dangerous detainees would go free.
The U.S. military strongly condemned the prisoner release, saying some of those set free were directly linked to attacks that have killed or wounded 32 U.S. or coalition personnel and 23 Afghan security personnel or civilians.