Afghan Assembly To Discuss U.S. Relations

The Loya Jirga, or grand assembly in Afghanistan, will gather 2,000 delegates from across the country to Kabul on Wednesday. The event has long been cast by opponents of President Hamid Karzai as the first step in his attempts to increase his power and perhaps extend his term beyond 2014. The Loya Jirga has no legal force, but with parliament suffering legitimacy problems, members of parliament fear Karzai is starting to establish an alternative over which he has much more control. The Jirga is supposed to consider a future strategic partnership with the U.S. as well as ways to re-start peace talks.

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Delegates from across Afghanistan will convene tomorrow in Kabul. The Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, will discuss a long term strategic partnership with the United States. The issue is controversial in Afghanistan because it could involve permanent American military bases. The meeting itself is also controversial. President Hamid Karzai says the Loya Jirga will provide him with advice from the public, but his political opponents say Karzai is trying to use the assembly to extend his mandate.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Security checkpoints have locked down the city of Kabul all week in an effort to protect some 2,000 delegates coming from every corner of the country.

NICK MUHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: The circumstances in our country require a Loya Jirga, says Nick Muhammad(ph) a delegate from the southern province of Kandahar. He says Afghans want to be consulted before the government makes any deals with the United States about a military presence here past 2014.

Another delegate, Turan Abdul Halik(ph), agrees.

TURAN ABDUL HALIK: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Abdul Halik says he wants an agreement where American forces will stay another 10 years to protect Afghanistan, but he wants rules that prevent American troops from conducting nighttime raids when they enter Afghan homes.

The meeting is also supposed to discuss ways to open peace talks with the Taliban, a notion with many skeptics since the assassination of President Karzai's head peace negotiator in September.

But there are also skeptics about the entire process. Members of parliament say that, if President Karzai wants representatives from all over the country to buy into his deal with the United States, he's got a parliament for that.

Abbas Noyan is a spokesman for the newly formed opposition, Party for Right and Justice. He says this Loya Jirga has no power to ratify any deal with Washington.

ABBAS NOYAN: This Loya Jirga is kind of advisory Loya Jirga. If President Karzai wanted to put it in action, it should go to the parliament and pass the parliament argument. Then it will be lawful and we will support that.

LAWRENCE: But Noyan points out that the delegates to this advisory Loya Jirga are much more beholden to the president than members of parliament, many of whom have spent the past year fighting with Karzai over election results. Karzai's critics have predicted for years that he might call a Loya Jirga like this one and use it to push for changes in the constitution that would allow him to run for a third term in 2014.

That may not happen tomorrow, but opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah says he thinks this Loya Jirga could set a dangerous precedent.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: (Unintelligible) the constitution of Afghanistan, bypassing the constitution of Afghanistan. He can get endorsement for anything he wants, including the extension of the term, which is his main (unintelligible). I have no doubt in my mind.

LAWRENCE: Abdullah was invited as a delegate to the Loya Jirga, but he says he's boycotting. The meeting is scheduled to proceed despite threats by the Taliban to kill anyone who attends. The Taliban claims to have obtained a copy of the security plan for the assembly, which the militant group sent out to journalists on Sunday. NATO and Afghan officials said the plan was a fake and a scare tactic by the Taliban.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

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