Loya Jirga opens amid Afghan-US wrangling

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Image caption President Hamid Karzai will address the Loya Jirga in Kabul

The Afghan legend of a people never conquered is deeply woven into the fabric of the nation, and that is why President Hamid Karzai has called a Loya Jirga gathering - he does not want to be remembered as the man who signed away Afghan sovereignty on his own.

Mr Karzai is looking for political cover for a deal to allow US troops to stay on Afghan soil after the end of 2014. But the Loya Jirga opens in the most chaotic of circumstances with US officials saying the published text is not complete.

US Secretary of State John Kerry talked to President Karzai on the phone twice in two days, and said there is now a deal to be put to the Loya Jirga to decide on.

The US has agreed that their troops should not "target Afghan civilians" but can enter Afghan homes. A US official said that an agreed additional line saying that this should only be in "extraordinary circumstances to protect American lives" does not appear in the final text.

President Karzai has raised this issue often in the past - most recently in an interview with the BBC last month - when he said that international forces had brought only suffering to his country.

But after days of political theatre, he failed to win concessions, at one point even demanding that the Americans admit past mistakes, a tactic that won a blast of contempt from Washington.

Given the complexity of working in three languages, with many delegates unable to read, a lot now depends on how the mercurial and unpredictable president of Afghanistan presents the text when the Loya Jirga opens.

When asked to convene the meeting, even the chairman of the Loya Jirga, the veteran Afghan politician Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, questioned whether it was necessary.

He believed that a future US presence was already covered by an agreement signed off by a previous Loya Jirga.

The Loya Jirga process is a modern version of an old Afghan principle of elders gathering together to govern by consent.

"Consultation has a deep root in Afghan culture," said Najib Amin, deputy head of policy for the Loya Jirga.

There are 14 separate categories of delegates including elders from remote places, but also some MPs, provincial councillors, a women's section and representatives from NGOs.

Mr Amin said that the Loya Jirga would begin with a speech by President Karzai, which will set the tone, and it will then break into small groups where there would be a chance for delegates to express their views.

Image caption Afghan troops are providing tight security for the Loya Jirga

There has been a lively debate in the Afghan parliament over whether the Loya Jirga can approve the security deal with the US on behalf of the nation. But realistically it is hard to see parliament or the president rejecting a Loya Jirga decision.

The last-minute wrangling over the text was a surprise even to seasoned Karzai watchers as he pushes the talks beyond the brink, perhaps not realising that the US would have walked away.

All the indications are that the "zero option" of no foreign troops in Afghanistan, remains a possibility.

One senior Western diplomat said that "the probability of success is 90%". But 10% is an uncomfortably big number.

When Mr Kerry left Kabul after face-to-face talks last month, he believed he had the wording he wanted to allow troops to enter Afghan homes.

At the time the only outstanding issue appeared to be the issue of whether US troops should be tried in the US or in Afghanistan for any crimes committed on Afghan territory.

Both men agreed to leave this to be decided by the Loya Jirga.

Both the US ambassador here, James Cunningham, and the most senior US general, Isaf commander Joseph Dunford, have held lengthy talks at the presidential palace, investing time and energy in reaching an agreement.

'Stakes are high'

Ideally the US would have wanted the agreement signed some months ago, to make proper planning as they draw down from almost 50,000 troops to around 10,000, and reconfigure the force as a training and advisory mission, with a small counter-terrorism element.

Failure to reach a deal quickly also jeopardises the contribution from other Nato forces - notably German, Turkish, and Italian - who have agreed to command regional headquarters after the end of 2014. And it would mean UK forces pulling out of their commitment to support the fledgling Officer Training Academy.

The agreement also includes a reference to the US commitment to fund Afghan forces at $4.1bn (£2.5bn) a year.

So if there is no deal, that commitment too would be questioned by US lawmakers, impatient to cut funding wherever they can, and weary of Afghanistan.

Amrullah Saleh, the former head of the Afghan Intelligence service the NDS, said he was confident that the deal would be agreed on terms acceptable to both sides.

"The only thing that gives me high confidence and hope that this will not be a goodbye Jirga, but it will be a Jirga bonding the two nations together is that the stakes are high for the two nations," he said.

"Abandoning a country as strategically located as Afghanistan will be committing the mistakes of previous world powers… the mission is not finished," Mr Saleh added.

But the continued presence of US troops has significant critics. Wahid Mozhda, a member of the Movement Against Foreign Bases, said that the Americans had failed to defeat the Taliban with 100,000 troops - how would 10,000 manage to do the job? he asked.

As a reminder of continuing insecurity, a bomb close to the area where the Jirga will be held killed 10 and injured many more at the weekend. The Taliban have threatened to carry out further attacks.

Thousands of extra police have been drafted in to lock down the city centre to try to prevent further attacks.