Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Broad Welcome for US Pact Decision in Afghanistan
President Hamed Karzai tells graduates of Afghanistan’s military academy about plans to take over security operations from NATO, March 2011. (Photo: Isafmedia/Flickr)
As expected, last week’s Loya Jirga or grand assembly in Afghanistan approved President Hamed Karzai’s plan for a strategic relationship with the United States.
Many welcomed it as a way of securing Afghanistan’s future security in a hostile neighbourhood. But critics decried it as an illegitimate use of the traditional assembly’s format to railroad through a difficult decision.
The Loya Jirga, a gathering of over 2,000 tribal and community leaders, politicians and other leading figures from across the country, was the latest in a series of assemblies called to discuss key changes in Afghanistan since 2001.
While its decisions are not ultimately binding, they give much-needed legitimacy to Karzai’s pact with Washington, in a country where many view the NATO-led troop presence as unwelcome.
The November 16-19 meeting resulted in a lengthy document setting out terms for a future US presence, and introducing restrictions such as a ban on night-time operations, the closure of American-run detention centres, and an end to legal immunity for foreign soldiers.
US combat troops are supposed to leave Afghanistan in 2014, handing over security to local forces. But Washington wants to retain a longer-term presence of the sort planned for Iraq, where its troops play a back-seat role.
Inevitably, the decision to bind Afghanistan’s future to the US caused controversy.
In the southeast province of Nangarhar, university students demonstrated against the continuing American presence, blocking the main road to Kabul for several hours until police cleared them away.
After the idea of holding a Loya Jirga was floated in April, Afghanistan’s parliament complained that Karzai was undermining its authority as approving international pacts was its own prerogative. (See Afghan Lawmakers Tackle Karzai on US Deal.)
A parliamentary bloc called the Coalition for Support of the Law denounced the loya jirga as illegal on the grounds that it did not meet the criteria for holding such assemblies.
However, the coalition controls only 100 or so seats in the lower house of parliament. In the end, about 170 members of the 249-seat legislature attended the Loya Jirga.
Presidential spokesman Siamak Herawi rejected claims the event was unconstitutional, insisting that Karzai had a mandate to convene a Loya Jirga whenever this was needed, for example to determine key matters of national interest.
Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for the a different parliamentary opposition group, the Coalition for Change and Hope, was more equivocal saying that while the Loya Jirga was unlawful, its decision approving a prolonged US presence was nevertheless in the national interest.
At the same time, Sancharaki questioned whether the special conditions set out by the Loya Jirga were workable, since Washington was unlikely to allow Afghanistan to prosecute US servicemen or other nationals.
“If the US does accept everything and signs an agreement, but subsequently breaks it, where will the Afghan government go for arbitration or appeal?” he asked.
General John Allen, the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said night-time military operations are essential to the war against insurgents, and in any case are usually conducted jointly with Afghan forces.
Allegations that international troops behave in a high-handed way, killing civilians with apparent impunity and offending local sensibilities, have been a constant theme in Afghanistan in recent years, and Karzai has had to steer a course between raising concerns and maintaining good relations with his foreign allies.
The same concerns were expressed by former parliamentarian Hajji Farid, who said the strategic pact would undermine Afghan sovereignty.
“The Americans have not respected any demand made by the Afghan government in the last ten years,” he said. “The president has asked the Americans several times to end overnight operations and stop the killing of civilians, but they haven’t done so. They have made frequent assaults on the beliefs and culture of our people. If this kind of unlimited pact is signed with the US, the Americans will carry on behaving in a high-handed manner.”
However, insofar as it is possible to gauge the public mood, the majority view seems to be in favour of the Loya Jirga’s decision.
Political analyst Faruq Bashar, for example, believes that Afghanistan is not ready to go it alone and that as long as western cooperation does not mean interference, it will benefit from economic, political and security support.
“The downside of these agreements,” he added, “is neighbouring states – particularly Iran and Pakistan – which do not want a powerful country like America to maintain a presence in Afghanistan as they feel threatened by this.”
IWPR interviews on the streets of Kabul suggest many residents of the capital agree.
“Holding the Loya Jirga and reaching a consensus on signing a strategic treaty with the US is like a knife in the heart for the Iranians and Pakistanis,” Khair Khana district resident Hajji Daud, 57, said. “A strategic pact with the US will help us rid ourselves of [the influence of] those two craven countries – otherwise they will eat us alive.”
Sayed Asef, 60, took a pragmatic view, arguing, “If you aren’t reliant on someone these days, you will perish. The Afghan government thus has to establish relationships with major powers.”
Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.
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