Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked the nation's elders Wednesday to back negotiations for a new security pact with the United States, assuring them that he would demand an end to unpopular night raids in which troops swoop down from helicopters and search Afghan homes.
He struck patriotic themes at a national assembly where he outlined his conditions for an agreement that would govern America's military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. By that time, U.S. and other foreign combat troops are supposed to have left or taken on military support roles.
Karzai is walking a tightrope. Although he routinely plays to anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan by denouncing the U.S., he needs America's military and financial strength to back his weak government as it battles the Taliban insurgency.
Karzai acknowledged that Pakistan, Iran, Russia and other regional powers have expressed concern at the idea of permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan. But he said Afghanistan would let U.S. forces stay because America is sending aid and training Afghan security forces.
In exchange, he said night raids should end and that the Afghan government, not Americans, should be put in charge of detainees.
"We want a strategic partnership but we have conditions for it," Karzai told 2,200 Afghan leaders at the opening of a grand council, or "loya jirga."
Karzai doesn't need the elders' permission to broker a pact with the U.S. He wants their stamp of approval to strengthen his negotiating position.
A partnership document is meant, in part, to give Afghans confidence that the United States will not abandon them after 2014.
So far, Karzai's terms have been unacceptable to American officials, according to those familiar with the ongoing discussions. But an accord would give the U.S. a legal framework to continue training missions, counter-narcotics work and counterterrorism operations to kill and capture suspected insurgents and terrorists.
Much of the counterterrorism work is done on night raids _ quick-strike operations that the U.S. will rely more heavily upon as the foreign troops' footprint shrinks during the next few years.
Karzai says troops on night raids treat too many civilians as if they were insurgents and violate privacy in an intensely conservative society. Afghan citizens cannot feel secure if they think armed troops might burst into their homes in the middle of the night, he says.
The U.S.-led coalition has given no indication that it is willing to stop the raids. It says night operations are conducted with Afghan security forces and are an effective way to keep pressure on militants. The coalition estimates that an average of 12 operations are conducted every night in Afghanistan.
"Night operations are among the safest of all military operations, with over 85 percent of missions being conducted without a single shot being fired," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings Jr., a coalition spokesman. "Civilian casualties during night operations account for less than 1 percent of all civilian casualties.
"The bottom line is these are the most successful and safest operations that we do. Night operations have removed a significant number of insurgents that are responsible for killing Afghan civilians."
Karzai peppered his speech with nationalistic statements about Afghanistan not tolerating meddling from other nations. He likened his homeland to a lion.
"America is a powerful, rich and wealthy nation with a larger population, but we are a lion," Karzai said.
When people in the audience chuckled, Karzai continued with the analogy.
"We are ready for a strategic partnership between a lion and the U.S.," he said.
"A lion doesn't like anyone to enter into his house. A lion doesn't like strangers entering his house. A lion doesn't like that his sons are taken out of his house during the night."
Some of his critics boycotted the meeting, accusing the president of sidelining the parliament. Trying to appease his opponents, Karzai noted that the parliament still would have to approve of any pact negotiated with the U.S.
The Taliban condemned the meeting as an attempt by the U.S. to justify a permanent presence in Afghanistan. The insurgent group promised to launch attacks to disrupt it, but no violence was reported on the opening day.
Security for the four-day jirga is tight. Much of Kabul went into a security lockdown ahead of the meeting. Roads were closed and intelligence agents swarmed the meeting hall on the outskirts of the capital, Kabul.
At the last such meeting _ a "peace jirga" in June 2010 _ Taliban fighters wearing suicide vests fired at a tent holding some 1,500 dignitaries, lawmakers and civil society activists. The assault triggered a battle with security forces that killed at least two militants. Karzai brushed off the interruption and urged fighters to lay down their arms
Since then, a new hardened structure has been built at the jirga site.
Associated Press Writers Heidi Vogt and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.