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Afghans Debate Future U.S. Military Presence


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


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The future of the American military presence in America's longest war, the war in Afghanistan, is up for debate today in Kabul. A traditional meeting of some 2,500 tribal elders and other elites, called a Loya Jirga, was convened this morning by the President Hamid Karzai. At stake is a new plan worked out by American and Afghan negotiators for keeping some American troops there past 2014, when the current arrangement runs out. The U.S. now has 60,000 troops in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government released a draft of the deal overnight and for more we're joined by NPR's Sean Carberry in Kabul. He's been following those negotiations and watched the Afghan president address the jirga today.

Thank you for joining us.


MONTAGNE: What did Karzai tell these local leaders who've come from all over the country to start things off this morning?

CARBERRY: Well, he gave a bit of a meandering speech, ran over an hour long. But the one theme that he kept hitting was that this is about the dignity of the Afghan people. And his biggest concern is preventing foreign troops, primarily U.S. troops, from going into the villages and homes of Afghan people. And that this was the crux of the deal and what they've negotiating over the last week or so.

He said at one point that the U.S. doesn't trust him, he doesn't trust the U.S. But still, this deal is about the Afghan national interest. He also mentioned the issue that Afghanistan wants continued financial support. And ultimately he told the people there to consider the national interest when they're debating the agreement. And that's what they should look at - what kind of future do they want for Afghanistan.

And late in the speech, he did throw one curve ball where he said that if the jirga approves the deal, then it shouldn't be signed until after the presidential elections next year, essentially implying that he's not going to sign the deal himself. Now, there have been lots of twists and turns over the course of the negotiations here, and it may turn out to be something that he doesn't exactly mean that way.

But if he does mean that, it has the potential to essentially tank the deal.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's proceed as if the deal will potentially go through. What is in it for the U.S.? I mean the U.S. interest there, what does this deal do?

CARBERRY: Well, the U.S. has said there were two mission areas that they're concerned about. One is the continued training of Afghan forces. They want to keep somewhere on the order of six to 9,000 troops here, some of which will be continuing to train and support Afghan forces as they developed. And then some of those troops will be involved in limited counterterrorism operations to go after the remnants of al-Qaida.

That's where a lot of the controversy was, about to what extent can U.S. forces conduct operations - go into homes, things like that. And that's where they appear to have finally settled on language that both sides can live with.

MONTAGNE: Is there optimism that the jirga will agree to this deal?

CARBERRY: Well, a lot of people have said that the jirga is essentially stacked with people who support Karzai and support the deal, and therefore they will sign off on it. But even if the Loya Jirga does approve the deal, the next step it has to go before parliament for approval. And there it's possible that there are independent voices who might raise more objections, and more potential that they could raise problems for this deal going forward.

MONTAGNE: By your measure, do Afghan people - the regular folks that you talk to - are they for this?

CARBERRY: Yes, in my time here, over the last few months talking to people, I've found overwhelming support for the deal. There have been a lot of people frustrated that Karzai hasn't gotten this deal done sooner. Even presidential candidates have said they wanted this deal done. So there seems to be overwhelming support. Certainly there are dissenters but the majority opinion seems to be in favor of the deal.

MONTAGNE: Sean, thanks very much.

CARBERRY: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Sean Carberry in Kabul, where a Grand Council of Elders is debating a security agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.