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Afghan Council To Consider U.S. Partnership Pact


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. A couple of thousand delegates from all over Afghanistan are gathered in Kabul today for a Loya Jirga - a grand assembly. President Hamid Karzai convened the meeting as a way to consult with elders and community leaders on two topics key to that country's future - peace talks with the Taliban, and a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S. That partnership could include long-term military bases and it's something that the U.S. is really hoping to get.

NPR's Quil Lawrence joined us with more from Kabul. And Quil, what did President Karzai say in his opening remarks today?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Karzai gave a long speech to the assembly. After many references to the glories of Afghanistan's past, he got right down to the main issue, which is a strategic partnership with the United States. This is controversial in Afghanistan because with growing anti-American sentiment here, it's not a terribly popular notion to propose permanent or long-term U.S. military bases. So in some ways Karzai was really warming up the crowd. He didn't lay out the exact terms of the agreement. It hasn't been fixed with the United States yet, but he wanted to make clear that Afghanistan was going to enter into this strategic partnership as an equal, and he said that there would conditions.

He repeated a demand he's made many many times in the past, that any agreement would have to include an end to these nighttime raids by U.S. forces where American forces enter Afghan homes. These have been very controversial and probably the largest source of anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan. The rest of his speech was all over the place, really. He made an off-hand remark that he actually found Iran more reasonable to deal with. He was also sometimes contradictory, suggesting that perhaps American military bases would allowed long-term, but that Afghanistan should have its sovereignty right away. It wasn't very clear. We may hear more specifics in the days to come.

MONTAGNE: Now, and even though peace talks with the Taliban seem to be on the agenda there, the Taliban themselves are threatening to attack this gathering. In fact, I gather that they have obtained, or claimed to have obtained, a complete security plan.

LAWRENCE: Yes. NATO and Afghan officials are saying that this is a stunt, that this plan is a forgery. But on Sunday, the Taliban's press office sent the entire press corps a two dozen page security plan for the Loya Jirga in Kabul. And we called some of the numbers, the phone numbers on the plan, and they were authentic, they did reach senior officials in the Afghan government. But there was a big question why they would have released that in advance instead of using it to stage a major attack, and so far there haven't been major incidents. There was a man carrying a bomb who was shot near the assembly on Monday, but the city has been in complete lockdown all week. The streets this morning were fairly empty. And Kabul, as you know, has had a hard couple of months with many attacks here and so there's a lot of tension in the city, and people are taking the Taliban's threat seriously when they said that they would kill anyone who attended the Jirga.

MONTAGNE: And then some opposition leaders are boycotting this grand assembly. They say Karzai should have taken up these important matters, or should in the future with parliament.

LAWRENCE: That's right. No one really disputes that he has the right to call a non-binding traditional consultative Loya Jirga as sort of a countrywide town meeting of sorts under a big tent. But this isn't like the grand assemblies in the past where they were legally binding to. For example, they called a Loya Jirga to ratify the constitution. So his opponents have said that because - especially because Karzai has had - been fighting with the parliament all year over their election results, that he wanted to get a large assembly together that would be more on his side.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, what is likely to come out of the next few days of meetings?

LAWRENCE: Well, because there's no offer really on the table of what the strategic partnership will be, we can expect perhaps an endorsement of general principles of a strategic partnership with the U.S. There may be some new push towards peace talks with the Taliban, although that is looking less and less likely. Other than that, we're expecting some very lively discussions.

MONTAGNE: We've been speaking with NPR's Kabul bureau chief, Quil Lawrence. Thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.