Afghan Elders Begin Debate About Future Of U.S. In Afghanistan

Thursday saw the start of the Loya Jirga in Kabul, where political, tribal and religious leaders are debating the terms of a proposed bilateral accord with the United States.

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The Loya Jirga has begun. A grand assembly of Afghan elders and other elites is debating a proposed security agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. The pact would allow some U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014 to train Afghan forces and to conduct limited counterterrorism operations. After more than a year of talks, this proposal was only completed in the waning hours before today's meeting.

As NPR's Sean Carberry reports, it also came with a surprise twist.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The city of Kabul is on a five-day holiday and under near-complete lockdown. Checkpoints extend for miles from the Loya Jirga Hall. Today, the press was sequestered in a hotel about half a mile from the hall. From there, you could see Russian-made helicopters hovering in the distance as a convoy of SUVs pulled up to the venue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARBERRY: Moments later, President Karzai emerged in the Jirga Hall. As the 11 men vying to succeed him in next spring's election looked on from the front row, Karzai stepped to the podium to give the 2,500 jirga delegates their marching orders.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: (Through translator) Every member of our nation who has suffered for the last 30 years wants peace and stability and order and a stable government. And they are asking you to carefully discuss this bilateral security agreement.

CARBERRY: Karzai's meandering speech lasted more than an hour and vacillated between lukewarm praise of the bilateral security agreement, or BSA, and criticism of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

KARZAI: (Through translator) The most important reason we wanted this agreement was to prevent these foreigners from going into the villages and people's houses, and to provide more security. We have had very heated discussions about this.

CARBERRY: These heated discussions continued until today. Karzai was demanding that no U.S. forces should ever be allowed to enter an Afghan home after 2014. Secretary of State John Kerry finally negotiated an exception for extraordinary circumstances when the lives of U.S. troops are in danger.

As Karzai explained this compromise, a female senator began heckling the president.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KARZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KARZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KARZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: She denounced the deal, saying the U.S. would abuse this clause. Karzai acknowledged there are opponents of the deal and they should be heard. But the biggest controversy came towards the end of Karzai's speech.

KARZAI: (Through translator) The agreement should be signed when the election is conducted, properly and with dignity.

CARBERRY: In other words, Karzai introduced a new condition, saying even if the jirga approves the agreement he won't sign it until a new president is elected. If that's a firm position, it could very well kill the deal for the U.S., which wants the BSA signed as soon as possible.

KATE CLARK: It was so surprising. We listened back two or three times, just to make sure we had understood.

CARBERRY: Kate Clark, with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, says Karzai has never taken ownership of the war in Afghanistan, and doesn't seem to want to own this agreement.

CLARK: He doesn't want to tarred or labeled as the Afghan leader who did the deal with the foreigners.

CARBERRY: Hence, she says, his tepid sales pitch to the jirga today. Though most analysts and officials here say the jirga is stacked with people who are expected to approve the deal, including a clause that says American troops in Afghanistan will be under U.S., rather than Afghan legal jurisdiction.

The Loya Jirga is scheduled to deliver its verdict on Sunday, and then the agreement will go before parliament.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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