(AP) A meeting of Afghan tribal elders and other leaders looked set on Sunday to recommend that the country's president sign a security deal with the United States as quickly as possible, ignoring his demand for a delay until after next April's elections.
The 2,500 members of the national consultative council known as a Loya Jirga met to present their conclusions after spending three days debating the draft agreement seen as necessary to enable thousands of American soldiers to stay beyond a 2014 deadline, primarily to train and mentor government security forces who are still struggling to face a resilient Taliban insurgency on their own.
The Loya Jirga has no legal weight and can only recommend to President Hamid Karzai what he should do. He convened the council to solicit their advice on whether he should sign the agreement or not.
President Barak Obama's administration has said it wants a deal signed by the end of the year and warned that planning for a post-2014 military presence may be jeopardized if it is not approved by Karzai.
The Obama administration has said it will pull all its forces out of Afghanistan without a security deal, as it did when Iraq failed to sign a similar agreement. Most of America's allies have also said they will not keep troops in Afghanistan without the deal.
Karzai stunned the U.S. when he urged delegates on Thursday's opening day to approve the security pact but said he will leave it to his successor to sign it.
His remarks were widely seen as last-minute move to force the gathering to ask him to sign the long-delayed accord thus shifting the responsibility for the deal away from him to the elders. Karzai is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.
Karzai seems to be concerned about his long-term legacy, that he doesn't want to be seen as the Afghan leader who agreed to keep foreign troops in his country beyond 2014, when a NATO mandate ends and international military forces depart Afghanistan. His move also could be an attempt to avoid taking personal responsibility for an agreement that some Afghans might see as selling out to foreign interests.
But Karzai spokesman Aimail Faizi said the president would press his case for a delay in signing until after the April 5 elections in a speech to close the meeting.
By late morning the heads of more than 30 of the 50 committees debating the deal said they favored signing of the Bilateral Security agreement as soon as possible, with a majority saying the United States had met the conditions set by Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai.
"The signing of (the) Bilateral Security Agreement is very important for Afghanistan because when it is signed our people will have no concern for their future. It is our suggestion that after the end of Loya Jirga the president should sign it as soon as possible and send it to parliament for approval," Rahima Jameh said. She headed one of the committees, each made up of about 50 delegates.
But numerous committees said they had issues with a clause giving the U.S. legal jurisdiction over troops and Defense Department civilians accused of crimes in Afghanistan, although they said they wanted the deal in principle.
Some committees said that trials should be held in Afghanistan, under U.S. jurisdiction, while others said the Afghan government and families should have access to any trials. Few, however, so far said they disagreed outright with the U.S. having jurisdiction.