Afghan Elders' Grand Council Considers US Presence

November 16, 2011 - 1:20 PM
Afghanistan

Participants listen to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, not seen, deliver a speech during the opening of the

Kabul, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan president told tribal elders on Wednesday that partnership with the United States depends on ending unpopular nighttime NATO raids against insurgents and handing over control of detention centers to Afghan troops.

Hamid Karzai spoke at the opening of a grand council, or "loya jirga," where the elders are considering the terms of the future U.S. presence in their country.

Karzai told the roughly 2,000 delegates to keep in mind both the need for international help, while seeing to it that Afghans are setting the rules in their own country.

"We want to have a strong partnership with the U.S. and NATO, but with conditions," Karzai said. " We want our national sovereignty, and an end to night raids and to the detention of our countrymen. We don't want parallel structures alongside our government."

The U.S.-led coalition has argued that night operations to kill or capture insurgents keep pressure on militants, while minimizing the risk to civilians. Coalition officials say Afghan forces are the first in the door of any raid and that most of the operations are conducted without a shot fired.

Karzai says that the troops conducting night raids treat too many civilians as if they were insurgents and violate citizens' privacy in an intensely conservative society.

The jirga is meeting for four days to discuss the American military presence as troops draw down, as well as possible peace talks with the Taliban.

The jirga holds no legal authority, but if the group backs Karzai's demands, it could give him extra leverage in negotiations over the deal to keep some American troops in Afghanistan another decade, despite opposition from his people and the war-weary U.S. public.

The roughly 100,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan operate without a bilateral agreement, though the majority of them are under a U.N. mandate.

Karzai noted that the Afghan government is also working on partnerships with France, Britain, Australia and the European Union, but that with the large U.S. presence in Afghanistan, it was particularly important to get input from tribal leaders on the accord with the Americans.

Few expect the four-day loya jirga to produce much of substance, both because it can make no binding declarations and because there is no draft accord to present to the assembled elders.

Parliamentarians complain the meeting is unconstitutional because it sidelines the legislature, which should be the body to consider such national issues.

In an apparent attempt to calm critics, Karzai stressed that this meeting serves only as an advisory gathering.

"This jirga is only for the partnership and peace, nothing else," Karzai said, addressing concerns that he might use the gathering a way to gain backing for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for a third term.

The Taliban have condemned the meeting as an attempt by the U.S. to justify a permanent presence in Afghanistan, promising to launch attacks to disrupt it.

Much of Kabul went into a security lockdown ahead of the meeting, with extra roads closed and intelligence agents swarming around the meeting hall on the outskirts of the city. At the last such meeting — a "peace jirga" held last June — Taliban insurgents fired into the tent, disrupting the gathering but causing no casualties. Since then, a new hardened structure has been built that should in theory be less vulnerable to incoming fire.

Separately, NATO said four of its service members were killed Wednesday — three in southern Afghanistan and one in the east. No other details were disclosed. So far this year, 505 international troops have been killed in Afghanistan, including at least 372 Americans.

Afghan officials said one policeman and two civilians, including a child, were killed Tuesday when bombs loaded on a donkey exploded in northern Afghanistan.

Abdul Satar Barez, the deputy governor of Faryab, said 17 other civilians were wounded in the blast, which occurred shortly before noon in Ghormach district of Badghis province, which is governed by officials in neighboring Faryab province.

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Associated Press Writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.