Karzai advises Afghans to approve pact under which US forces will stay in place

President suggests pact should only be signed by a new president chosen in an election nearly six months away

Afghan president Hamid Karzai speaks to Afghan delegates during the Loya Jirga, a traditional forum dealing with significant decisions affecting the whole country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, yesterday. Photograph: EPA

Afghan president Hamid Karzai speaks to Afghan delegates during the Loya Jirga, a traditional forum dealing with significant decisions affecting the whole country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, yesterday. Photograph: EPA

 



The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has reluctantly urged his countrymen to let US forces stay on in the country for another decade, saying that although there is no trust between him and Washington, a small American military presence is the country’s best hope of stability.

Addressing 2,500 delegates gathered for the Loya Jirga – the grand assembly – summoned to vote on a draft security pact between the two nations, Mr Karzai urged the hall to think of future generations when they decided whether to give the deal their approval.

“Where is the advantage in this agreement? Why should we sign it?” he asked the hand-picked group of men and women. “It gives us the opportunity to move from our current situation to a stable situation.”

But in an unexpected move likely to unnerve US officials who want their future role settled, he suggested the pact should only be signed by a new president chosen in an election nearly six months away. Mr Karzai cannot stand again, but the 11 candidates to replace him had prominent seats at the meeting.

The Bilateral Security Agreement paves the way for up to 15,000 foreign troops, more than half of them American, to stay on in nine bases until 2024.

Nato combat forces will leave at the end of next year, and the new agreement is vital to ensuring Afghans get the funds and training to support a weak military. The US troops will use their bases to chase al-Qaeda along the Pakistani border.

The deal has been highly controversial, with the final wording only agreed between Washington and Kabul hours before the delegates took their seats. But the Loya Jirga is expected to be more political theatre than real test of the accord, as Mr Karzai looks to spread the political risk of signing off on a long-term US presence.


Popular support
“What comes out pretty clearly when you talk to people who are on the organising committee or ordinary delegates at this thing [is that] pretty much everyone is in favour of the Americans having a troop presence. Not absolutely everyone, but there is a surprising consensus,” one western diplomat said. “If that’s the overwhelming picture, then surely Karzai is going to get that through in some way.”

The last-minute discussions on the draft came after Mr Karzai demanded an apology from the US for past mistakes and a ban on troops going into Afghan homes, both of which the White House refused.

It may have been heartfelt, as Mr Karzai has long been a staunch advocate of barring western soldiers from Afghan houses, but it was also politically astute before a conference at which delegates include the relatives of civilians killed by bothTaliban and Nato forces.

The dispute gave him grounds to shift the focus away from the US demand their troops have immunity from the Afghan judicial system, which is highly emotive, to whether troops can enter homes.

The Afghan president read out a letter he said came from the US president, Barack Obama, urging Afghans to vote for the deal, promising respect from his troops, and saying they would enter houses only when their own lives were at risk.


American undertaking
“We will continue to make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans, in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our citizens,” the only section of the original English released by the president’s aides read. The US embassy declined to say whether the letter was genuine or not.

Mr Karzai said he had canvassed major powers, including India, China and Russia, and Pakistan and leaders of other neighbouring countries, and all except Iran had urged him to sign the security pact.

He finished what is likely to be one of the key speeches of his career with an appeal to delegates’ concerns for their children. His own son, he said, had learned the words “ministry of defence” aged only four, after the building near the palace came under attack. “In what country is that normal?” he asked. “So it will be better for our future if we sign this agreement.” – (Guardian service)