Loya jirgato mull over strategic partnership deal

Afghan President Hamid Karzai outlined conditions for a long-term U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan at a major gathering of elders on Wednesday debating the future after NATO combat forces leave.

Mr. Karzai told day-one of the loya jirga that he wanted Afghan-U.S. relations to be those of “two independent countries” and assured neighbours like China and Russia that a long-term deal would not affect ties with them.

Mr. Karzai convened the four-dayjirgato secure backing for a strategic partnership deal with the U.S. under negotiation which will govern relations after NATO combat forces withdraw in 2014.

The Taliban, waging a 10-year insurgency against the Karzai government, threatened to target theloya jirga.But with the strategic partnership some way from being finalised, the outcome of thejirganon-binding and political opponents staying away, some critics accuse Mr. Karzai of little more than posturing in calling the event.

“We want our national sovereignty and we want it today,” Mr. Karzai told the 2,200 delegates in Kabul. “We want our relationship with America to be one of two independent countries.”

Mr. Karzai called on the U.S. to stop night raids and disband international bodies — such as combined civilian-military reconstruction teams which play a governmental role — as conditions of the deal. But if Washington meets demands such as these, Mr. Karzai said Afghanistan was prepared to host U.S. troops in the long-term.

“If they want military installations, we will allow them, it is in our benefit, money will come to us and our forces will be trained,” he said. “Do we need their help? Yes we do, but on condition that Afghanistan should not be trampled.”

Washington insists it is not seeking a “permanent” military presence, saying instead it is looking to help Afghan security forces with intelligence sharing, air power and logistics beyond 2014. U.S. officials say a deal could involve shared facilities.

Mr. Karzai also reassured Afghanistan's neighbours, many of whom are concerned about a long-term U.S. influence in the region.

“Afghanistan sees its national interest in having good relations with neighbours and want our independence to have good relations with neighbours such as China, Russia and others,” he said.

The Taliban is not formally represented at the event, butjirgaspokeswoman Safia Sediqi said some individual Taliban supporters may be representing local communities. “We welcome everyone,” she added.

The U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership, which diplomats hoped would be concluded by now, will govern ties between the two after 2014.

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