KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide car bomber tore through the Afghan capital Saturday, just hours after President Hamid Karzai announced U.S. and Afghan negotiators had agreed on a draft deal allowing U.S. troops to remain in the country beyond a 2014 deadline.
The blast, which killed six people near where thousands of tribal leaders will discuss the deal next week, was a bloody reminder of the insecurity plaguing the country after 12 years of war.
The suicide bomber attacked security forces protecting the Loya Jirga site, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said. He said the blast killed six people and wounded 22. Among the dead were two security personnel, he said.
Sediqqi said Afghan security forces had prior knowledge of the suicide bombing, but were unable to stop the attack. He did not elaborate.
No group immediately claimed the attack, though blame is likely to fall on the Taliban, who have adamantly opposed the presence of any foreign soldiers in Afghanistan.
Karzai called for the Loya Jirga, a national consultative assembly of tribal elders, which will begin meeting Thursday to discuss the proposal. Some 3,000 elders and influential figures will debate the Bilateral Security Agreement.
Without its approval, Afghanistan likely will refuse to sign the agreement. If the Loya Jirga does approve it, the agreement still requires final approval from parliament, Karzai said.
U.S. officials refused to comment on the draft, describing the effort as an ongoing diplomatic process. Karzai provided few details regarding how and when the draft was finalized, but said there still remain "differences" between Washington and Kabul on the deal.
Negotiations have been protracted and often acrimonious. In the end it took a surprise visit to Afghanistan in October by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to produce the outlines of a deal.
Earlier, two senior U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Afghanistan had sought specific security guarantees, particularly against cross-border incursions by insurgents from neighboring Pakistan. Washington is cautious about any commitments that could lead to a conflict with Pakistan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the deal was still being negotiated.
Karzai described a laborious negotiation process that sometimes came down to fine details of phrasing.
"There was one word that we didn't want in the agreement but (the U.S.) wanted it and in the end they agreed to not use that word," he said, without identifying the offending word.
Karzai did not say what the draft said regarding U.S. service members' immunity from prosecution in an Afghan court. They could still face prosecution in a U.S. court.
The sweeping document incorporates the usual Status of Forces Protection Agreement, which the U.S. signs with every country where its troops are stationed, along with a wide range of other clauses. It covers everything from customs duties on goods the U.S. imports for its troops and development projects to the question of whether a U.S. service member could be prosecuted for criminal offences in an Afghan court.
Still this key American demand has been a sore point in Afghanistan. Many are still angry over incidents including the February 2012 accidental burning of hundreds of copies of the Islamic holy book, 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.
Still, the audacity of Saturday's daylight bombing, just 200 meters (220 yards) from the site of the Loya Jirga, was a stark reminder of militants' striking power in the country. It also seemed to bolster arguments of those who favor the security agreement and a continued presence of international forces in Afghanistan.
"I believe that without this document, Afghanistan would again be isolated and alone," National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta told parliament Saturday.
Spanta warned that without a security agreement with the U.S., Afghanistan would be vulnerable to interference from its neighbors. Afghan officials routinely accuse Pakistan of interfering in its internal affairs and harboring insurgents on its soil.
A "no" vote from the Jirga likely will 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 also are expected to stay in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaida fighters and carry out counter-terrorism activities.
In his comments Saturday, Karzai didn't come out and endorse the agreement. He only urged participants of the coming Loya Jirga to carefully read it.
"They should think about the prosperity and stability of today and tomorrow in Afghanistan. And whatever decision they are making they should think about the future of Afghanistan," he said.
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon.