A security pact with the U.S., which is critical to Afghanistan’s ability to pay its soldiers and hold off the Taliban, is in limbo, after President Hamid Karzai shrugged off the recommendations of a national council that has approved the deal and said he would continue talks with Washington.

After a year of negotiations, the loya jirga, or grand assembly, of 2,500 delegates approved the agreement to keep U.S. troops in the country after the current combat mission ends in 2014.

But Mr. Karzai stunned U.S. diplomats and his own security officials when he told the opening session of the jirga that the security agreement should not be signed until after presidential elections in April.

Washington quickly announced that a deal had to be agreed by the end of the year, but Mr. Karzai said on Sunday that the U.S. had to prove its good intentions by keeping soldiers out of Afghan homes, ensuring the vote was transparent and promoting peace talks with the Taliban.

“If I sign and there is no security, then who is going to be blamed for it?” he told delegates.

The agreement will allow U.S. soldiers to stay on at nine bases, mentoring the ill-equipped and trained Afghan forces, and pursuing al-Qaeda.

Without a deal, the U.S. is unlikely to part with the $4 billion a year needed to pay the Afghan army, or provide helicopters and other equipment.

Many Afghans feel that the imperfect deal is the only protection they have against powerful neighbours. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013