NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday shrugged off U.S. talk of a total military withdrawal from Afghanistan if he didn’t sign a security agreement as brinkmanship and said he wouldn’t back down on his conditions for the deal.
Karzai was in New Delhi in a burst of regional diplomacy as his ties with Washington have come under renewed strain over his refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that will shape U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 when most international troops will leave.
He told reporters that the United States would have to stop the practice of raiding Afghan homes and help restart a peace process with the Taliban as necessary conditions for the security pact.
“We do believe that the BSA is in the interest of Afghanistan and the Afghan people have given their approval. But we also believe that protection of Afghan homes and the launch of a peace process are absolute pre-requisites,” he said.
If Karzai doesn’t sign the deal, Washington says it will have to withdraw its entire force of some 44,500 troops by the end of 2014. Other NATO nations could follow suit leaving Afghan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency on their own.
The complete withdrawal, called the “zero option”, would be similar to the pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq two years ago. Violence there is now at its highest level in at least five years, and more than 8,000 people have been killed this year, the United Nations says.
“I don’t think America is thinking of the zero option , its brinkmanship they play with us, and even if they did, then come what may,” the Afghan leader said.
U.S. officials have appeared exasperated by Karzai’s stance on the security agreement, which they say is needed to help them plan a future mission that will assist Afghan forces fight militants and that will allow for future aid crucial for the impoverished nation.
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that the delay in finalizing the deal - which U.S. officials had hoped Karzai would sign weeks ago - would impose “damages and costs” on Afghans.
But he added that the Obama administration was not on the verge of abandoning its effort to extend its troop presence in the country.
The security agreement would allow for the presence of nearly 15,000 U.S. and other NATO troops at nine locations around the country, Karzai said.
The agreement includes a provision allowing military raids on Afghan homes in exceptional circumstances - when an American life is directly under threat - but it would not take effect until 2015.
The issue is particularly sensitive among Afghans after a dozen years of war between Afghan and foreign forces and Taliban militants.
Karzai said he also wanted the United States to help him start an open and public peace process with the Taliban, rather than the secret diplomacy it had engaged in the past.
“Secret talks won’t help. U.S. and Pakistan have enough influence over the Taliban to relaunch the peace process.”
Karzai, who discussed the U.S. security deal with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has also held talks with the leaders of Iran and Pakistan this month.
Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Nick Macfie