KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — In his final address to Afghanistan's parliament Saturday, President Hamid Karzai told the United States its soldiers can leave at the end of the year because his military, which already protects 93 percent of the country, was ready to take over entirely.
He reiterated his stance that he would not sign a pact with the United States that would provide for a residual force of U.S. troops to remain behind after the final withdrawal, unless peace could first be established.
The Afghan president has come under heavy pressure to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, with a council of notables that he himself convened recommend that he sign the pact. The force would train and mentor Afghan troops, and some U.S. Special Forces would also be left behind to hunt down al-Qaida.
All 10 candidates seeking the presidency in April 5 elections have said they would sign the security agreement. But Karzai himself does not appear to want his legacy to include a commitment to a longer foreign troop presence in his country.
Karzai was brought to power in the wake of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and subsequently won two presidential elections __ in 2004 and again in 2009. But he has in recent years espoused a combatative nationalism, with his hour-long speech Saturday no exception.
"I want to say to all those foreign countries who maybe out of habit or because they want to interfere, that they should not interfere," he said.
Karzai said the war in Afghanistan was "imposed" on his nation, presumably by the 2001 invasion, and told the United States it could bring peace to Afghanistan if it went after terrorist sanctuaries and countries that supported terrorism, a reference to Pakistan.
Pakistan has a complicated relationship with the Taliban. It backed the group before their 2001 overthrow, and although now it is at war with its own militants, Afghan insurgents sometimes find refuge on its territory.
Karzai told parliament, which was holding its opening session for this term, that security forces were strong enough to defend Afghanistan without the help of international troops.
Karzai steps down after next month's presidential elections. Under Afghanistan's constitution, he is banned from seeking a third term.
He came to power in December 2001 following an international agreement signed in Bonn, Germany, and was confirmed by a Loya Jirga or grand council that selected a transitional government to rule while preparing for nationwide elections. He subsequently won two presidential elections.
Relations between Karzai and the United States have been on a downward spiral since his re-election in 2009, in which the United States and several other countries charged widespread fraud. Karzai in turn accused them of interference.
In his speech Karzai again urged Taliban insurgents to join the peace process, while accusing Pakistan of protecting the Taliban leadership. He suggested that Pakistan was behind the killing earlier this year of a Taliban leader who supported the peace process. No one has taken responsibility for the attack.
Throughout his speech Karzai spoke of his accomplishments over the last 12 years, saying schools were functioning, rights were being given to women, energy projects were coming online and the Afghan currency had been stabilized. Karzai said that when he first took power his country was isolated and nothing was functioning.
"I know the future president will protect these gains and priorities and will do the best for peace in the country and I, as an Afghan citizen, will support peace and will cooperate."
Afghanistan's current parliament plans to tackle a number of key issues, including a controversial law on the elimination of violence against women.
Meanwhile the Taliban released two Afghan army personnel, captured during last month's deadly raids on two military check points, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement Saturday. The men were freed after elders in the region interceded on their behalf and the military agreed to hand over to the Taliban the bodies of their colleagues left behind on the battlefield.
The attacks on Feb. 23 left 21 Afghan army personnel dead. Several insurgents were also killed.
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon