Herat, Afghanistan - Traffic on the streets of Kabul has come to a near standstill, with check-posts and roadblocks dotting the Afghan capital as Thursday's loya jirga, or grand assembly gets under way.
The meeting brings more than 2,500 men and women from across the country to Kabul, where for three days they will discuss a long-delayed strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the United States.
The Bilateral Strategic Agreement (BSA) will stipulate the conditions for any US forces remaining in Afghanistan beyond the planned December 2014 withdrawal of international troops. The agreement must be approved by both parliament and the civil representatives gathered at the "consultative" jirga.
Local leaders across Afghanistan met and decided, usually by voting, on who would represent each district in the jirga. Twenty percent of the seats at the talks are reserved for women, and civil society organisations will also be represented.
Some Afghans see the agreement as a necessary evil in a country where talks with the Taliban have faltered and the armed opposition refuses to lay down its weapons. Others, however, view any residual US forces as likely to continue 12 years of exploitative practices.
In the eastern city of Jalalabad, frustration with foreign forces spurred hundreds of students to rally against the agreement and in favour of the Taliban. Shouts of "Death to America! Death to Karzai! Long live the Taliban!" could be heard echoing from Nangarhar University on Tuesday.
For its part, the Taliban has called the loya jirga - the fifth called by the government in the past 12 years - a "farce". In a November 12 statement, Afghanistan's largest armed opposition group accused the "stooge regime" in Kabul of staging a "mock and ostentatious jirga" to implement a "treacherous deal". The deal, said the group, will "forever be known as national sedition and a criminal act against our nation".
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Though he is not a supporter of the Taliban, Mohammad Naeem, a businessman in Herat province, says attending the loya jirga would be treasonous. "What are we going to discuss - the rights of foreigners to go in and dishonour Afghan homes?" the 58-year-old said when asked why he refused the invitation to serve as a representative of the western province.
Naeem's objection brings to the fore one of the most contentious points in the BSA - US forces' rights to search and enter Afghan homes. In meetings held over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected any provision that would allow foreigners to conduct such raids.
An April 2012 agreement between Afghanistan and the United States gave Afghan forces the ability to approve and lead raids into Afghan homes as well as detentions. But more than a year later, residents of Maidan Wardak province said several raids and detentions continued to be led by US forces. Speaking to Al Jazeera in March, locals recounted harassment in raids led by US Special Forces.
The issue of raids remains especially sensitive in Kandahar, where in March 2012 Robert Bales, a US staff sergeant, went on a rampage killing 16 villagers, including nine children. Residents of the southern province, which has come to be known as the "birthplace of the Taliban", expressed continued anger at raids on their homes and the wrongful killings they say result from the raids.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Haji Nazarjan, a shopkeeper, said Kabul should be focusing on establishing an Islamic government that can provide peace. "We don't want the Americans … If you see anyone's house they have killed 15-20, even up to 40 people."
Saying the Karzai administration has been unable to hold foreign forces accountable for abuses over the last decade, Nazarjan sees little benefit in an agreement that would only extend their stay. "Karzai gives the victims' families 20,000 afghanis [$350]. With this money they been able to get away with destroying every Muslim's family," Nazarjan told Al Jazeera.
Residents of Kandahar have also been extremely critical of the possibility that the BSA could provide US forces with immunity from criminal prosecution. Not wanting to see a repeat of the US-based trial of Bales, which resulted in a life sentence, Nazarjan said "They should be tried in the same way our people are tried in Afghanistan. They have murdered people in Afghanistan."
Bibi Isaqzai shouted in anger as she accused the British and US forces in Kandahar of wrongful deaths. "The sooner they leave, the better … They hide people and kill them saying the Taliban did them. I've seen it myself. Even if they kill me I won't hide what I know," Isaqzai told Al Jazeera on the streets of Kandahar City.
Right now everyone from the rickshaw drivers to manual labourers, they're all directionless wondering what will happen in 2014.
Mohammad Sharif Mojadidi, who will be attending the loya jirga as a representative of Herat, admits that the discussions of immunity will likely be among the most intense and controversial. Though he agrees foreign forces suspected of crimes should be tried in Afghanistan, Mojadidi said his fellow delegates should take a nuanced approach towards the varying attitudes of the entire nation.
"We want what is beneficial to the people and government of Afghanistan," Mojadidi said.
Those who support Afghanistan signing a BSA with the United States say the current situation has left them with few other options. Pointing to the 23 percent increase in civilian casualties in the first six months of 2013, supporters of the BSA say the agreement can be a first step towards creating a more stable nation. "Even if only 50 percent of it is beneficial to us, it's something," Enayat, a Kabul resident who declined to give his last name, told Al Jazeera.
An agreement - "any agreement" - would provide a much-needed sense of certainty about the future of the nation to millions of Afghans, he said. "Right now everyone from the rickshaw drivers to manual labourers, they're all directionless wondering what will happen in 2014."
Sending a signal
Mojadidi and Mir Farooq Hosseini, a leading cleric from Herat, said the BSA will have reverberations beyond Afghanistan. They argued that an agreement with the United States would be a signal to Pakistan and Iran, whom many Afghans accuse of interfering in their country's political affairs.
Having solid commitments from the world's most powerful country could help to keep Afghanistan's neighbours at bay, said Mojadidi.
But even those supportive of an agreement say it would only be a small step towards restabilising Afghanistan.
Mojadidi said the country must focus on addressing its 35 percent unemployment rate if it hopes to become more stable. "The only thing that stands between us and success now is our economy."