Afghanistan 'loya jirga' endorses lingering US presence, but in what form?

In the wake of the latest Afghanistan 'loya jirga,' the challenge will be finding a way to make a strategic bilateral partnership mutually agreeable to both Afghans and the US.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan delegates listen to a speach by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the last day of 'loya jirga' or grand council in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday. A traditional Afghan national assembly on Saturday endorsed President Hamid Karzai's decision to negotiate a long-term security pact with the US but imposed some conditions, including an end to unpopular night raids by military forces searching for insurgents.

A day after nearly 2,000 Afghan elders concluded a 4-day loya jirga -- or grand assembly -- with a near unanimous decision to endorse a strategic agreement the US, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in the east of Afghanistan in protest.

Despite the student protest, where demonstrators said they feared such an agreement would create a never-ending American presence here, the loya jirga’s proposal has found widespread support throughout Afghanistan.

Among many Afghans there is an increasing realization that long-term stability will likely require American and international support for some years to come. While there is much weariness about the foreign presence here, many Afghans acknowledge that without it much needed support will evaporate. The challenge now is finding a way to make that presence mutually agreeable to Afghans and the US.

“Our people know they are vulnerable and know they need a strong partnership with the superpower in the world. They definitely realize the location of their country and they get all their problems from the neighborhood, from the region. That’s why they thought it’s for their benefit and the mutual benefit of the people of Afghanistan and the people of the United States,” says Hameed Farouqi, a representative at the loya jirga and a professor of economics at Kabul University.

US forces beyond 2014?

Although the loya jirga endorsed peace talks with the insurgency, the meeting was mostly focused on the strategic agreement with the US. The representatives stipulated a number of terms necessary for an agreement that would potentially allow US forces to stay beyond 2014 when all combat forces are required to leave the country.

Among the conditions laid out by the loya jirga, the representatives called for an end to night raids and housing searches, the closure of US and foreign operated prisons, and for Americans who commit crimes here to be held accountable in Afghan courts.

The final point may prove problematic in negotiations with the US.

American leaders decided to completely remove forces from Iraq last month when Iraqi politicians called for American forces to be held accountable by local courts.

American and Afghan officials have already spent months negotiating a potential partnership, but have yet to come to a final agreement. The loya jirga’s decisions are not binding, but President Hamid Karzai, who praised the recommendations, is expected to use them as leverage during future negotiations.

“The important thing is that for the first time in a very long time, especially in the last ten years, the people of Afghanistan – I’m not talking about the parliamentarians, I’m talking about the people, the real people, the tribal members – got together under one roof and saw each other and they discussed the problem of Afghanistan and they agreed” on the necessary solutions, says Prince Ali Seraj, a relative of Afghanistan’s former king and a representative at the loya jirga.

How representative was the loya jirga?

Still, there are many Afghans who question the loya jirga’s decision. Several people have criticized the meeting, which was called by Mr. Karzai, saying it was stacked predominately with government loyalists and was not a truly representative body.

“These are not the real representatives of the people. They were the puppets of the government. The government wanted this, that’s why they called this loya jirga even though there is a parliament,” says Mohammad Ismael, a student at Nangahar University who protested the loya jirga’s decision on Sunday. “We’ve never wanted this kind of agreement with America and we don’t want their military bases in Afghanistan.”

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