President Hamid Karzai received a resounding endorsement Saturday from a traditional national assembly to negotiate a security agreement that could keep a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan past 2014, when most international forces are to have left. The size of the force is subject to negotiations but a future deal could keep thousands of American troops here for years.
The nonbinding resolution issued at the end of a Loya Jirga assembly also suggested some conditions for the talks between Afghan and American officials, including an end to unpopular night raids by military forces searching for insurgents.
The more than 2,000 people who attended the four-day meeting asked Karzai to ensure the United States hands over all detainees to Afghan custody and limits any agreement to 10 years. They also said the future pact must be approved by parliament.
"We will act on the basis of your consultation," Karzai told the assembled delegates.
"I am very happy that you have accepted it and have put lots of conditions on it. I accept this resolution. It is the instruction to the Afghan government from the Afghan people."
As part of a future deal, both sides envision a force of several thousand U.S. troops, who would train Afghan forces and help with counterterrorism operations. The pact would outline the legal status of that force in Afghanistan, rules under which it would operate and where it would be based.
The jirga's findings are likely to bolster Karzai's negotiating position with the United States during difficult talks under way to craft what the U.S. is calling a Strategic Partnership Document.
Some critics have complained that Karzai organized the assembly as a rubber-stamp body, noting that it endorsed all conditions that Karzai outlined at the opening session.
"From the beginning we were pretty sure that the jirga was mainly a symbolic gathering of Afghans," said Haroun Mir, the director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think tank. "This is a symbolic gathering _ more political leverage for President Karzai to show to international community that he is still able to gather Afghans under one tent."
While the jirga ended on a positive note, there was much grumbling from the start.
Many participants wondered aloud how the Afghan government expected them to discuss a U.S.-Afghan partnership agreement if they weren't given a draft of the pact or told America's conditions for signing it.
Abdul Malik Nayazi, an elder from Parwan province, north of Kabul, said no one had seen anything in writing but still wanted to see an agreement signed.
"Unfortunately, the situation in the countryside is very difficult. The Taliban still are controlling many areas. If our Afghan security forces are not strong enough and equipped and well-trained, our problems will increase day by day. Until all our Afghan forces can stand on their own feet, we need the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan," Nayazi said.
President Barack Obama has already ordered 10,000 U.S. troops to leave by the end of the year and another 23,000 by the end of September 2012. NATO forces will also gradually withdraw. There are currently about 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan out of a total of about 131,000 international troops. Part of the American contingent also includes about 10,000 involved in special operations, such as night raids.
The resolution said any future deal should include the immediate end of night raids, where U.S. forces accompanied by Afghans carry out operations to kill or capture insurgents. They said all such raids should be Afghan-led.
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.
Washington sees the document as a nonbinding set of principles guiding the two nations' future relationship. The Afghans want a strong and binding agreement to govern the presence of American forces in the country after 2014.
Afghan politicians are under pressure to uphold the country's sovereignty, but also see the agreement as a key bulwark against both homegrown insurgents and some of its neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan. Both have been accused of maintaining ties with some Afghan militant groups and are uncomfortable with having U.S. troops on Afghan soil for years to come.
Delegates also presented the government with 22 suggestions about Karzai's effort to make peace with the Taliban through reconciliation talks, but that issue took a back seat at the jirga.
Peace talks have made no headway, and efforts were brought to a halt following the Sept. 20 assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading the Afghan government's effort to broker peace. Rabbani was killed at his Kabul home by an assassin posing as a peace emissary from the insurgent group.
Rabbani has not been replaced as head of the 70-member council, which is made up former Taliban, ex-warlords, members of parliament, top tribal elders and clerics. Critics have said that it is too heavily packed with Taliban opponents who could never deliver a reconciliation.
A committee leader, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, who was wounded in the Rabbani attack, said many jirga participants thought the makeup of the peace council should be changed. The panel needs people, such as clerics and tribal leaders, who have wide support in their own areas and would be acceptable to both sides.
"The majority of the Afghans, of course, want peace," Stanekzai said.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Patrick Quinn contributed from Kabul.