Loya Jirga: Karzai has blessing for US-Afghan security deal
KABUL — Afghanistan is one-step closer to signing an agreement with the U.S. that would keep international troops in the country beyond the end of next year, after a grand council approved the pact, but the timing is still up in the air and any major delay in finalizing it could still derail the plan.
The Loya Jirga, a grand council of leaders from around Afghanistan convened by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, approved a proposed bilateral security agreement with the United States Sunday, paving the way for America and other nations to keep a small military training and assistance force in the country for years after the Dec. 31, 2014, deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave the country. The agreement now goes to the Afghan parliament for a vote and, if approved, would require the president’s signature.
But while most of the 2,500 Jirga delegates demanded the agreement be signed immediately, Karzai, who had earlier proposed delaying the agreement until after his successor is elected in April, wouldn’t commit to a timeline. This angered many delegates, as well as U.S. officials, who said a long delay in approving the agreement could leave the country with too little time to plan for troop commitments and scuttle the agreement.
“You should sign it very soon or I will leave the country as a refugee,” Jirga Chairman Sibghatullah Mujadidi, said to Karzai, making a pointed joke at the end of the four-day conference.
Karzai, who could have approved the agreement himself but instead convened the Jirga, did say he would respect its decision, which is non-binding.
“As you decided to have the agreement, I will sign it,” he said in a speech to delegates Sunday, adding. “Today, America has got a message of friendship from Afghans. They have got permission to keep military bases here, but they must also start thinking about peace in this country” he said.
In a statement Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the jirga’s endorsement of the bilateral security agreement.
“The critical next step must be to get the BSA signed in short order, and put into motion an agreement which will lay a firm foundation for our two countries to continue working together toward a more secure and prosperous future for Afghanistan,” the statement said.
The outline of a post-2014 plan calls for U.S. troops at nine bases across the country, though several committees suggested adding a base in Bamiyan province, where there has been no international presence since April.
There was some debate over the details of a stipulation that the U.S. retain legal jurisdiction over its troops, meaning that any American service members accused of crimes in Afghanistan would be tried in U.S. courts. The Jirga accepted this, but asked that U.S. courts be set up at a military base in Afghanistan, in part so victims could attend the proceedings.
While the U.S. and other nations in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have been steadily reducing troop numbers in Afghanistan over the past two years ahead of the Dec. 31, 2014, American military leaders are pushing to keep a residual training and assistance force in the country for some years to come. The United States and its allies have discussed keeping 8,000 to 12,000 NATO troops in the country, though a final number has not been announced.
Delegates also called for an end to foreign air strikes and raids on Afghan homes, two issues that have caused anger in Afghanistan for years.
“They must stop raiding our houses from now,” Karzai said. “If there was a single raid again, there is no agreement then.”
The draft agreement says that Americans are not permitted to target Afghan civilians, “including in their homes, consistent with Afghan law and United States forces’ rules of engagement.”
In a letter to Karzai, which he read excerpts of at the start of the Loya Jirga on Thursday, President Barack Obama acknowledged Afghan concerns about “the sensitive issue of the safety and privacy of people in their homes.”
“U.S. forces shall not enter Afghan homes for the purposes of military operations, except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals,” he wrote. U.S. officials later said that stipulation was not included in the draft of the agreement that was released by the Afghan presidency just before the Jirga began. Several delegates at the meeting asked for clarification of “extraordinary circumstances.”
The Taliban issued a statement shortly after Sunday’s decision condemning any further deployment of foreign troops on Afghan soil. The Taliban have repeatedly said no peace deal can be finalized while foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.
In the statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that the presence of foreign troops in the country will prolong the war and will cause insecurity in the region.
“We will continue our armed resistance until the country is freed from the foreign troops and until they leave our country,” the statement read.
While Karzai got what he wanted in the approval of the agreement, delegates turned the tables on him to some extent, by loudly demanding the accord be signed well before Karzai had proposed, said Mohammad Younas Fakor, a political analyst in Kabul.
“I think Karzai wanted to use the Jirga to put pressure on Americans [to get concessions], but he himself came under pressure by the Jirga” Fakor said.
Despite the wrangling over when the agreement would be signed, endorsement of the agreement from the Jirga, whose members had to be approved by Karzai, was expected. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that there were no attacks in Kabul during the conference, a big win for the Afghan security forces who shut down miles of road around the gathering and arrested roughly 20 people accused of plotting to attack the council. The security forces also confiscated thousands of pounds of explosives as well as 22 mortar rounds and 10 rockets insurgents were planning to use in the attacks, said Rahmatullah Nabeel, acting director of the Afghan intelligence service.
Stars and Stripes reporter Cid Standifer contributed to this report.