Kabul, Afghanistan - Taking to the podium at Kabul Polytechnic University, representative after representative urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral strategic agreement with the US that they had spent the last three days discussing.
But Karzai, speaking at the conclusion of the loya jirga or grand assembly that brought more than 2,500 men and women to the capital, was steadfast in his belief that the US must "prove" it can provide security to Afghanistan before an agreement could be made.
It was a stark about-face for the Afghan leader, who had been in talks about the bilateral strategic agreement (BSA) for a year before the loya jirga met, and who repeatedly said it was up to the delegates to decide on the BSA.
Karzai added that starting November 24, US forces are expressly banned from entering Afghan homes. "If this happens one more time, this agreement will be nullified… and you will be restricted to your bases," he said to applause.
Al-Haj Abdul Majid Wardak, a member of the lower house of the parliament, said Karzai's repeated pronouncements about the US represented an important rhetorical development. "This is the first time in 10 or 12 years that we have heard Karzai say this so loudly and so boldly," Wardak told Al Jazeera shortly after Karzai's speech.
Before attending the jirga, Wardak said he consulted with local leaders in his home province of Maidan Wardak, the majority of whom shared the president's sentiments. "First [they] wanted peace, but specifically, [they] wanted a clear sense of [Afghan] control over the operations in the districts and villages," Wardak said.
The issue of raids has long been a hot-button issue in Maidan Wardak, and in February, the Kabul government ordered US Special Forces to withdraw from the province after accusing them of "harassing, annoying, torturing and even murdering innocent people".
Nader Nadery, a former commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the prevalence of representatives from war-affected areas supporting the BSA took him by surprise. Nadery's preconceptions were quickly challenged. However, he said that ultimately, there were only two dissenting opinions in an otherwise unanimous vote in support of Article 13.
|Afghans want to sign security deal with US
The representatives at the loya jirga - who included religious leaders, lawyers, civil society groups, governors, tribal elders, businessmen, refugees, and many others - were divided into 50 commissions with 50 members apiece, each discussing the draft BSA's 26 articles. The Taliban, which does not recognise the legitimacy of the Afghan government, has refused to participate in the talks, which it refers to as "treasonous".
Describing his committee as lively and engaged throughout the three-day proceedings, Nadery said Article 13, which "authorises the United States to hold [civil and criminal] trial … or take other disciplinary action, as appropriate, in the territory of Afghanistan" when a US soldier is accused of criminal activity, led to some of the most heated debates.
Representatives who had first-hand experience with foreign troops and raids asked for more detailed explanations of Article 13's Sub-Article 3, which states, "The Parties shall assist each other in investigation of incidents, including the collection of evidence". However, Nadery said that ultimately, only a few people in his committee disagreed with Article 13.
Karzai himself alluded to Sub-Article 3 during his closing address when he instructed US forces that even if the raids are against "Talibs or terrorists, they should be left to us to deal with".
'He is playing a political game'
The clear majority of the 50 committees requested that the agreement be signed and delivered to the parliament for ratification before the end of 2013. Sebghatullah Mujaddedi, a former Afghan president and the head of the jirga, called on Karzai to listen to the committees and expedite the signing of the agreement. "If Karzai does not sign the BSA, I will leave this country," the 88-year-old threatened. Nearly all 2,500 representatives stood and cheered in support of Mujadeddi's statements, according to delegates.
But Karzai gave no timeline for signing the pact. Concluding his Sunday morning address, Karzai reiterated that it is Washington that wants the BSA signed immediately. The president insisted that the US must first demonstrate that Afghan security will "not again be compromised" before his administration would sign the agreement.
Wardak agreed with Karzai's stance, saying that to sign the BSA immediately would be unrealistic and impractical. "This is an agreement between two nations. These recommendations require time. It can't be added and settled in an hour or a day," he told Al Jazeera.
Omaid Sharifi, who has consulted on the security transition after foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan, said the president's refusal to immediately sign the BSA was based on political considerations. "He is playing a political game. His public position has to be tough, because he needs the upper hand in the discussions," Sharifi told Al Jazeera.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said the US must take a number of precise steps before the agreement can be signed. "Between now and the [April 5, 2014] elections the US has to implement their commitments on no more conducting military operations on Afghan homes, starting sincere cooperation with the Afghan peace process and assuring transparent elections."
Karzai's tone changed notably from his opening address on Thursday, when the Afghan president quoted a letter from his US counterpart. Loya jirga delegates who wanted the BSA to be signed before the end of 2013 gave Karzai a "face-saving opportunity to back down gracefully, which he decided not to take", said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. "He is either a man who will sacrifice anything for his political gain, or he is genuinely worried about Americans returning to their old ways as soon as they have a deal."
Washington has remained firm in its stance, saying the pact, already more than a year in the making, cannot be further delayed.
Meanwhile, the Taliban says that despite Karzai's hesitance, the Afghan president is heading in the direction the United States wants.
In a statement, Afghanistan's largest armed opposition group said "our nation is not a[n] heirless and orphan nation that a few sellouts decide its fate, while the nation is soaked in the bloodbath of aggression, oppression, bombardments and raids of the invaders".
Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye