Karzai at loya jirga: Afghanistan is 'a lion' to be respected

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai kicked of this week's loya jirga by pointing out both the need for international and US help and the need to make sure Afghans are setting the rules in their own country.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
President Hamid Karzai speaks during the opening of a traditional loya jirga meeting of elders in Kabul, Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai opened a meeting of 2,000 Afghan elders on Wednesday with a strong call for lasting ties with the US and named the conditions necessary for a strategic agreement between the two nations. 

Provided the US agrees to the terms, Mr. Karzai said he was open to having US forces remain on bases here after the 2014 troop withdrawal deadline.

The speech marked the first time that the Afghan president has publicly laid out his desired plan for long-term relations with the US.

In recent speeches, Karzai has often thrown sharp barbs at the US, leading many to question the future of bilateral ties. But his opening speech at the loya jirga, or grand assembly, showed a marked enthusiasm for committing to strong ties with the US.

“America wants to stay powerful in Afghanistan and use our military infrastructure,” said Karzai during his speech. “They have their own goals and we have our own goals. We will search for our benefit and their benefit.”

No more night raids

Karzai laid out several conditions necessary for continuing relations with the US, most of which are familiar demands that include an end to house searches and night raids, closing international detention facilities, and recognizing Afghan sovereignty.

Following the president’s address, the loya jirga attendants started what will be four days of meeting to discuss strategic relations with the US and reconciliation talks with the insurgency. At the conclusion of the loya jirga, the participants will provide their recommendations to the parliament and Karzai.

The president, who called the loya jirga, appeared to have won over the majority of the audience with his speech, drawing cheers when he compared Afghanistan to a lion capable of standing on equal footing with the West. “It’s true that America is a powerful, rich, strong country, but we are also a lion,” he said.

Initial reactions from those in the audience indicate that the loya jirga is likely to embrace Karzai’s vision of future relations with the US. Karzai’s call for continuing to work with the US while emphasizing Afghan sovereignty and independence resonated strongly with many delegates.

“In Karzai’s speech there was not a single point I could object to,” says Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a loya jirga representative from Helmand province. “Now the nation of Afghanistan knows what is good for it and what is bad for it. I believe this strategic deal and any other will be good for Afghanistan.”

Still, many Afghans remain skeptical about how strongly their nation can dictate terms with the US, despite the president’s confidence. A number of Afghans have criticized the loya jirga, saying it is stacked primarily with Karzai loyalists.

“We have a proverb in Pashtu that a powerful person and a weak person cannot be friends. Right now, America is powerful and Afghanistan is the poorest in the world, so if Afghanistan agrees or doesn’t agree America will try to stay in Afghanistan until they reach their goals,” says Habib Rahman, a Kabul resident who listened to the speech on television.

Though all of Kabul was on tight security lockdown, with many Afghan and international organizations closed for security reasons, the first day of the loya jirga concluded without any attacks.

In the days leading up to the loya jirga, there was some concern after the Taliban claimed to have intercepted the government’s security plan for the event and a suicide bomber tried unsuccessfully to enter the site of the loya jirga on Monday.

During the last loya jirga in 2010, insurgents attacked the event with rockets and suicide bombers during Karzai’s address.

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