Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged tribal elders Thursday to back a vital security pact with the U.S. that would see thousands of foreign troops remain in his war-ravaged country after 2014, though he acknowledged a breakdown in trust between the two nations.
Speaking in Kabul at the start of a four-day gathering of the loya jirga, or grand council, Karzai told delegates: "My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them, and they don't trust me."
He pledged his own support for the bilateral security agreement with Washington, under which he said up to 15,000 foreign troops could stay in Afghanistan following next year's planned military drawdown. But in a potential blow for U.S. dealmakers, the Afghan leader said he would defer any signing of the accord until after the country's April 5 elections.
In a last-minute bid to bolster support, President Barack Obama sent a letter promising that the U.S. will continue to respect "Afghan sovereignty" and vowed that the U.S. military will not conduct raids on Afghan homes except under "extraordinary circumstances," involving urgent risks to U.S. nationals. The statement referred to compromises made in the draft text of the agreement.
Obama also said "we look forward to concluding this agreement promptly" in the letter.
Washington has indicated that it wants the agreement in place as soon as possible to enable the U.S. and NATO to start planning for a post-2014 presence. Thursday afternoon, the U.S. State Department said it was "neither practical nor possible" to delay the signing beyond the end of this year.
Under the plan being presented, the United States would maintain several bases in Afghanistan after the bulk of its forces pull out next year. But in a move that is likely to be opposed by many attending the loya jirga, American soldiers will be given immunity from Afghan prosecution.
The gathering in Kabul will now debate the draft proposal and decide whether to accept its terms or leave Afghan forces to continue fighting the Taliban on their own.
Karzai told about 2,500 tribal chiefs, chieftains and dignitaries attending the assembly that the U.S. deal gives Afghans a chance to move on after "more than 30 years of war."
"The agreement gives us a chance to transition into stability," he said. "This agreement provides us a transitional period to reach stability in the next 10 years ahead of us.
"If signed ... 10,000 to 15,000 of their troops will stay. When I say 'their troops,' I don't mean the Americans (alone)," Karzai told delegates, saying the force would include troops from other NATO members as well as "Turkey or some other Muslim nations" (Turkey is a member of NATO).
The U.S. has not given a figure of how many troops would remain in Afghanistan post-2014. The White House said Thursday that Obama would decide about troop levels after the pact is signed.
Karzai's appeal came hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that the two countries had agreed on the final language of the security agreement.
"We have agreed on the language that would be submitted to the loya jirga, but they have to pass it," Kerry said during a news conference with Australian officials and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
A 24-page draft of the pact was released by the Afghan government Wednesday. It appears to meet U.S. demands on controversial issues, including whether American troops would unilaterally conduct counterterrorism operations, enter Afghan homes or protect the country from outside attack.
But it is likely to further expose deep reservations in Afghanistan over legal immunity for U.S. soldiers and contractors, as well as the issue of night raids.
Many Afghans civilians are opposed to any deal with the U.S. They want all foreign troops out of their country.
"They will not give them military bases and we don't want them," said Sayed Jan, who lost his wife, brother, cousin and niece in Kandahar Province – all killed, along with 12 others, by U.S. Army staff sergeant Robert Bales. "They have killed our people. They have destroyed our villages. They came at 3 in the morning, to our house, and the children were sleeping in the room.... my own family....(cries)."
Immunity concerns have threatened to derail diplomatic efforts to keep thousands of American soldiers in the country beyond next year's official withdrawal deadline. Negotiations have taken on added urgency recently, amid a spike in violence that has raised fears that Afghan forces are not ready to take over the battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters without more training.
Without an accord in place, Washington has warned it could withdraw all its troops by the end of next year and leave Afghan forces to fight a Taliban-led insurgency without their help.
The draft agreement outlined Wednesday is due to take effect on Jan. 1, 2015, and states it will remain in effect "until the end of 2024 and beyond, unless terminated."
But approval by the sitting loya jirga is far from certain.
Intense negotiations between Kabul and Washington have given way to frustration among the Afghan tribal and political elders, many of whom have made perilous journeys from across the country to the capital for the chance to debate the pact.
As late as two days ago, it wasn't clear that a deal would be presented to the assembly. Efforts to finalize the pact stalled on Tuesday amid disagreement over whether Obama had agreed to issue a letter acknowledging mistakes made during the 12-year Afghan war.
Kerry denied any discussion about the possibility of an apology to Afghanistan for U.S. mistakes or Afghan civilian casualties, a move that would likely draw widespread anger in the United States.
"The important thing for people to understand is there has never been a discussion of or the word 'apology' used in our discussions whatsoever," Kerry said, adding that Karzai had also not asked for an apology.
It was unclear where the notion of an apology originated. No mention of it was made in the reports of Karzai's citing of the White House letter Thursday.
Al Jazeera and wire services