Afghan and U.S. negotiators have finished a draft of a contentious security pact to be presented to a traditional council next week, President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday, but added that there remain disagreements between the two countries over the final content of the accord.
Mr. Karzai also told reporters at a news conference that without approval of the Loya Jirga, a gathering of several thousand prominent figures from across the country, Afghanistan will likely refuse to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement.
U.S. officials refused to comment on what they described as an ongoing diplomatic process.
Negotiations have been protracted and often acrimonious. In the end it took a surprise visit to Afghanistan in October 2013 by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to produce the outlines of a deal. After a lengthy meeting with Mr. Karzai, the two announced that an agreement had been reached in principle on the major elements of the pact.
A sweeping document, the pact incorporates the usual Status of Forces Protection Agreement, which the United States signs with every country where its troops are stationed. The document covers everything from customs duties on goods the U.S. imports for its troops and development projects to a promise not to prosecute a U.S. service member for criminal offences in an Afghanistan.
“Because this is an ongoing diplomatic discussion, we’re declining to comment on the state of the text or the process that got us to this point,” said Robert Hilton, U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kabul.
“The draft is completed,” said Mr. Karzai, adding however that “there are still a few special points still being discussed ... There are still some differences”.
Immunity from prosecution of U.S. service members has been a sore point in Afghanistan, where many Afghans are still angry over incidents including the February 2012 accidental burning of hundreds of copies of the Quran, a March 2012 shooting spree by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan that killed 16 people, and unintended civilian deaths from U.S. bombs.
The Loya Jirga, which is to begin on Thursday, will involve about 3,000 elders, clerics, parliamentarians and influential figures. The debate is expected to last several days and attendants are expected to be deeply divided over signing the pact.
“The Loya Jirga will bring together all the people, who agree and disagree about the Bilateral Security Agreement. We want them to talk about the agreement in a free and fair environment without any pressure on them,” Mr. Karzai said urging only that the attendants read the agreement carefully and in detail. He asked that they study each clause before coming to the Jirga.
“After that then they should come out with their own decision,” he said.
A majority negative vote from the Jirga will likely scuttle the agreement and leave Afghanistan without any U.S. forces after the end of 2014. With the agreement, the residual force of about 10,000 that is expected to remain behind would mostly train and mentor Afghanistan’s National Security Force. A small group of U.S. Special Forces are also expected to stay in Afghanistan to hunt down the al-Qaeda and carry out counter-terrorism activities.
Bomb hits Kabul
A suicide vehicle bomb tore through the Afghan capital on Saturday, killing at least one soldier securing a site where the Loya Jirga is to gather next week.
Authorities said they expected casualties to rise from the powerful blast, which mangled a dozen cars and destroyed shops nearby. Ambulances raced away with dozens of wounded from the site. Police could be seen collecting body parts.
The explosion came just hours after Mr. Karzai announced that U.S. and Afghan negotiators had finished a draft to be presented to the Loya Jirga.
Another three soldiers were wounded when the explosive-laden vehicle rammed into their armored vehicle posted about 200 meters from the giant tent where the Loya Jirga is to be held, said Defence Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi.
No one has immediately taken responsibility but the blame is likely to fall on the Taliban, who have adamantly opposed the presence of any foreign soldiers in Afghanistan.