In Afghanistan, Tribal Elders Get A Say In Security Pact With U.S.

In Afghanistan, a grand assembly of some 2,500 tribal elders, politicians and civil society elites are meeting to decide whether to approve a security agreement with the United States. Approval by the grand assembly, called a loya jirga, would be in addition to the OK of the Afghan government. But as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has noted, the agreement can't go forward without the backing of the Afghan people. The security agreement would allow as many as 9,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the current NATO mission ends next year. Those troops would continue to train Afghan forces, but also conduct limited counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida fighters.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now to Afghanistan and a grand assembly of tribal elders, politicians and civil society elites called a loya jirga. They're assembling to decide whether to approve a security agreement with the U.S. The deal would allow some three to 9,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the current NATO mission ends next year.

Those troops would continue to train Afghan forces and conduct limited counterterrorism operations against remaining al-Qaida fighters in the country. NPR's Sean Carberry joins us from Kabul to discuss the progress of a loya jirga. Hi, Sean.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Hello, Arun.

RATH: So what's at stake here? What is the role of a loya jirga in this process of approving the security agreement?

CARBERRY: Well, a loya jirga is an important traditional gathering for Afghans to debate issues. And in this case, some 2,500 delegates came to Kabul from all over the country. President Karzai convened this jirga saying the Afghan people must decide on the security agreement. And if the jirga signs off on it when it concludes tomorrow, it'll go to parliament for approval, and then it's to be signed by Karzai in the U.S. And the U.S. wants the deal signed no later than the end of this year.

RATH: The path getting here up to the a loya jirga has not exactly been smooth sailing. What were the sticking points in the negotiations?

CARBERRY: Well, the most recent of several hurdles was whether U.S. troops could enter Afghan homes during operations. Karzai said no way under any circumstances. But just before the jirga began, Secretary of State Kerry negotiated an exception when the lives of U.S. troops are at risk. Karzai then demanded a letter from President Obama guaranteeing the U.S. would respect Afghan's sovereignty and do everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

With that settled, it seemed the jirga would be relatively drama free. But Karzai threw another curveball saying in his opening speech that he wouldn't sign the agreement until after the presidential election next spring. And that set off a storm both in Kabul and Washington, which again says the deal has to be signed by the end of the year to plan the post 2014 mission.

RATH: Hmm. And, Sean, you spoke with some of the delegates of a loya jirga today. What did they have to say about this and, well, the security agreement in general?

CARBERRY: Well, they expressed shock and frustration about Karzai's decision not to sign the agreement. Pretty much, there was unanimous sentiment that he must sign by the end of the year. And delegates said that they're working on a resolution demanding that he sign the deal. On the whole, they expressed broad support for the agreement, though there was heated debate over the issue of U.S. troops entering Afghan homes and legal jurisdiction.

The U.S. says that there's no deal unless U.S. troops in Afghanistan are subject to U.S. rather than Afghan law. And one delegate said these articles are like a poison that the people have to swallow to have the whole deal, which he says is ultimately beneficial for Afghanistan. And one point to note is that before the jirga, officials said the delegates would be selected to rubberstamp the agreement. And honestly, I couldn't find anyone today who opposed it.

RATH: NPR's Sean Carberry in Kabul. Sean, thank you.

CARBERRY: You're welcome.

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RATH: This is NPR News.

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