Hundreds of Afghan students demonstrated against a possible security pact with the United States, chanting anti-US slogans in the first major public protest over the deal.
The demonstration in the eastern city of Jalalabad on Tuesday, which according to reports on the scene numbered around 1,000, blocked a key road between the Afghan capital of Kabul and Jalalabad.
The protest comes as thousands of Afghan tribal and political leaders will meet in a grand assembly, called the Loya Jirga, in Kabul on Thursday for five days of deliberations to decide whether US troops will be allowed to stay after the 2014 drawdown of foreign forces.
The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) will determine how many US soldiers stay when most of NATO’s troops deployed in the country since 2001 – currently numbering 75,000 – leave at the end of next year.
If the agreement is signed, US forces of between 10,000 and 15,000 troops will remain. However, without a consensus on the agreement, the US says it could pull out all of its troops, leaving Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces on their own to fight the Taliban-led insurgency.
Security was tight in the capital ahead of the grand assembly meeting following a suicide bomb attack outside the location of the event over the weekend.
“The Loya Jirga is crucial for the future of our country,” said Farhad Sediqqi, a member of parliament who will attend the assembly.
“Afghanistan needs to have a partnership and a pact with the United States,” he added.
Aghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai floated the idea of a “grand council” in order to muster popular support for the security deal opposed by many Afghan politicians and ordinary people.
Taliban fighters have branded the tribal meeting as a US-designed plot, vowing to pursue and punish its delegates as traitors if they approve the deal.
A student at the protests on Tuesday, Habib-Ul Rahman Arab, accused the delegates, most of them hand-picked by President Hamid Karzai’s administration, of being government supporters.
“They are not our representatives. They are not representatives of [the] Afghan people,” he said.
The grand assembly meeting comes at a critical stage for Afghanistan ahead of a presidential election next year and growing anxiety about security as foreign troops prepare to leave.
Afghanistan has been gripped by an insurgency since 2001 and tens of thousands of US and NATO troops have been deployed since then.