Afghan assembly backs U.S. troops pact; Karzai sets terms

AFP-JIJI

An Afghan grand assembly Sunday endorsed a crucial security agreement allowing some U.S. troops to stay on after 2014, although President Hamid Karzai set conditions for signing the deal.

The 50 groups making up the Loya Jirga gathering of about 2,500 chieftains, tribal elders and politicians gave unanimous backing to the pact at the end of four days of discussions under tight security in Kabul.

The assembly urged Karzai to sign by the end of the year the Bilateral Security Agreement governing the presence of the troops after 2014, the date for most NATO combat forces to pull out.

Karzai told the opening of the meeting on Thursday that the deal would not be signed until after April’s presidential election — sparking a strong response from Washington, which wants it sealed by the end of this year.

A closing statement agreed by delegates asked him to sign before the end of 2013.

“Given the current situation, and Afghanistan’s need . . . the contents of this agreement as a whole is endorsed by the members of this Loya Jirga,” said the statement read by Loya Jirga Deputy Fazul Karim Imaq.

In his response, Karzai did not explicitly address when the deal would be signed, but he stressed that it would only proceed under certain conditions.

These included U.S. “cooperation” in Afghanistan’s efforts to make peace with the Taliban, who have led the 12-year insurgency against Karzai’s government and its foreign backers.

Karzai also stipulated that there could be no more U.S. military raids on Afghan homes, a sensitive topic that threatened to derail the deal last week.

“If the U.S. goes into Afghan homes one more time, there will be no agreement, I repeat, if they go into our homes one more time, there will be no agreement,” Karzai said.

The pact must be approved by the Afghan legislature before it can go into effect. But the question of when it would be signed has largely overshadowed discussions of its content in recent days.

The U.S. State Department warned that failure promptly to sign the pact — which governs the conditions of any post-war American counter-terrorism and training mission in Afghanistan — could jeopardize billions of dollars in vital aid to the war-torn country.

The White House has said it needs a swift decision to start planning the movement of U.S. troops, and warned that President Barack Obama had not yet decided whether to keep any American forces in Afghanistan at all beyond 2014.

Karzai’s long-time ally and the jirga chairman, Sebghatullah Mojadidi, threatened to leave the country if the president refused to sign the pact. Other delegates shouted: “Sign it, sign it.”

Supporters say the deal is vital for after 2014, when the bulk of NATO’s 75,000 remaining troops will pull out. The Taliban insurgency this year has reached levels of violence not seen since 2010, according to the United Nations.

Karzai told delegates that the BSA would allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to stay.

The country goes to the polls on April 5 to elect a successor to Karzai, who must step down after his two terms. A credible election is seen as crucial to the country’s future stability.

On Saturday, delegates debated the legal oversight of U.S. troops who remain after 2014.

A draft text released by Kabul last week appeared to show Karzai had bowed to a U.S. demand that American troops remain exempt from Afghan jurisdiction if they are accused of crimes.

A similar security deal between the United States and Iraq collapsed in 2011 over the issue of whether American troops would be answerable to local courts, leading Washington to pull its forces out.