Afghan President Hamid Karzai told a meeting of tribal elders and political leaders on Thursday they should support a security pact with the United States, but acknowledged there was little trust between the two nations.
A Loya Jirga, or grand council, involving about 2,500 delegates convened a day after Karzai and Washington reached agreement on a pact defining the shape of the U.S. military presence after a 2014 drawdown of a multinational NATO force.
“My trust with America is not good. I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me,” Karzai told the assembly. “During the past 10 years I have fought with them and they have made propaganda against me.”
Delegates at the five-day Loya Jirga, many of them bearded men with elaborate turbans but with women among them too, will debate the draft and decide whether to accept it – whether they want U.S. troops to stay, or leave Afghan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency alone.
The pact also has to be approved by parliament.
If the United States pulls out, others are expected to follow suit and a thinner international presence could deter donors from releasing promised funds. After more than 12 years of war, Afghanistan remains largely dependent on foreign aid.
While the pact is widely expected to pass, several thorny issues, including a U.S. request for jurisdiction over its troops, could hold up a decision.
Karzai made no reference in his speech to the question of jurisdiction over U.S. troops, which two years ago, prompted the United States to pull most forces out of Iraq. Instead, he focused on a letter sent by U.S. President Barack Obama promising the pact would in Afghanistan’s best interest.
“We want this pact in order to move out of this unsteady situation. If the foreigners leave unhappy, it will be very dangerous for us,” Karzai told the gathering.
Up to 15,000 foreign troops could remain in Afghanistan after 2014 if the pact is signed.
The United States and Afghanistan have spent much of the past year wrangling over the agreement, but ultimately the United States won concessions on several areas of contention.
Along with immunity from Afghan law for its troops, these included a request to allow U.S. forces searching for militants into Afghan homes, which outrages Afghans and which Karzai has long opposed because of the anger it causes.
“American forces for military operations will enter Afghan homes only in exceptional and extraordinary cases … only in circumstances where there is a serious threat against American troops,” Karzai said.
Afghanistan has a long tradition of Loya Jirgas, grand meetings of elders and other notables from around the country that are convened whenever crisis threatens, or when important affairs of state are to be discussed.
Karzai called the assembly in order to muster public support for a pact regarded by many Afghans with contempt.
As Karzai spoke about U.S. assurances, a female senator leapt up to interrupt him, shouting that any deal with the Americans amounted to selling the country out.
The Taliban, fighting to expel foreign forces and impose their vision of Islamist rule, have condemned the Loya Jirga as a farce. Insurgents fired two rockets at the tent where the previous Loya Jirga was held in 2011, but there was no violence as Karzai opened proceedings.
The elders and leaders, who have travelled from all over the country to attend, have voiced frustration over the way negotiations between Kabul and Washington have been conducted.
The draft was only agreed at the last minute on the eve of the Loya Jirga after Karzai tried to persuade the United States to wait until a new president was elected in order to sign the deal, an option opposed by Washington.
In April next year, millions of Afghans will vote in what is seen as the most important presidential election in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The Taliban, who harbored the al Qaeda leaders who plotted those attacks, were driven into mountains on the border with Pakistan and soon began organizing their insurgency.
The presence of the U.S.-led force has generated deep enmity among some Afghans who resent what they see as U.S. violations of their sovereignty. They have also been angered by civilian casualties suffered during U.S. military operations.