A security deal to allow some US troops to stay in Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda was at risk of collapse Tuesday after President Hamid Karzai said he was prepared to walk away from negotiations.
The United States has pushed for the bilateral security pact (BSA) to be signed by the end of this month so that the US-led Nato military coalition can schedule its withdrawal of 87,000 combat troops by the end of next year.
But Karzai said he refused to be rushed into signing the deal, and would first seek approval from a traditional grand assembly to be convened in a month's time.
"The agreement has to suit Afghanistan's interests and purposes. If it doesn't suit us and if it doesn't suit them, then naturally we will go separate ways," Karzai said in a BBC interview in Kabul.
According to the Afghan government, talks ground to a halt over US demands for the right to conduct unilateral military operations after 2014, and on how the US would pledge to protect Afghanistan.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week described the deal as "critically important" and said he hoped it would be signed by the end of October.
The collapse of a similar agreement with Iraq in 2011 led to the US pulling all its troops out of the country, which is currently suffering its worst sectarian violence since 2008.
But Kabul has dismissed the possibility that the US may enact the "zero option" of a complete pull-out after its troops have fought the Taliban for 13 years since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Karzai is keen to secure a legacy as a strong leader before he steps down next year, and his stance on the BSA matches his incendiary accusation that the NATO war effort has caused "a lot of suffering" without delivering any gains.
"The president is trying to show he's tough, he's not a puppet, he's not giving in easily and he's there for his people," Waheed Wafa, the director of Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, told AFP.
"Criticising the West has become a habit of the president's. Maybe it is because it is his last days in office," Wafa said, adding the BSA deal could still be signed after tortuous last-minute negotiations.
After Karzai's latest comments, Washington said it remained committed to talks and urged Kabul to stay focused on concluding the deal.
"We've made progress, but these kind of negotiations are complex with any country," deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
"We always expected there would be sticking points and bumps in the road... We need to really be focused on this agreement and get it done soon."
President Barack Obama this week said he would consider a limited US mission after 2014 only if the Afghan government "was willing to work with us in a cooperative way that would protect our troops".
One key bone of contention is how the security pact should define an attack on Afghanistan that would trigger US protection.
"We believe that when terrorists are sent to commit suicide attacks here, that is also aggression," Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi said recently, referring to Pakistan-based militants whom Afghanistan believes are supported by Pakistan's intelligence services.
Karzai officially suspended BSA talks in June in a furious reaction to the Taliban opening a liaison office in Qatar that was presented as an embassy for a government in waiting.
The Taliban regime was driven from power by a US-led coalition in 2001 for sheltering the al Qaeda leaders behind the 9/11 attacks.
Since then the Islamist rebels have fought a bloody insurgency, and both the US and Afghan governments now back peace talks to end the conflict.