Afghan elders gather to debate vital U.S. security pact

Hamid Shalizi

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL (Reuters) - Thousands of Afghan elders gathered in Kabul on Thursday to debate a crucial security pact with the United States, a day after Kabul and Washington reached a draft agreement laying out the terms under which U.S. troops may stay beyond 2014.

Efforts to finalize the pact had stalled ahead of the Loya Jirga grand council meeting this week, but the two sides found a last minute deal on the eve of the event.

It is now up to 2,500 Afghan dignitaries to debate the draft and decide whether U.S. troops would stay or leave Afghanistan forces to fight the Taliban insurgency alone.

"We have reached an agreement as to the final language of the bilateral security agreement that will be placed before the Loya Jirga tomorrow," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Washington.

Security was tight as the five-day Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan meeting convened to debate matters of national importance, embarked on the debate. President Hamid Karzai was expected to deliver a speech to the meeting, held in a massive tent, sometime after 9 a.m. (0430 GMT) .

For almost a year, Washington and Kabul have struggled to conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement that will help determine how many U.S. soldiers and bases remain in Afghanistan after most foreign combat troops exit by the end of next year.

The Taliban have condemned the Loya Jirga as a farce. Insurgents fired two rockets at the tent where the previous Loya Jirga was last held in 2011, but missed the delegates.

Afghan tribal and political elders, who made perilous journeys from all over the country to attend the grand assembly, have voiced frustration over the way negotiations between Kabul and Washington have been conducted.

U.S. forces arrived in Afghanistan soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and helped Afghan fighters topple a Taliban-led government which harbored the al Qaeda leaders.

Their presence has generated deep enmity among some Afghans who resent what they see as U.S. violations of their sovereignty and angry over civilian casualties suffered during U.S. military operations.

(Writing by Dylan Welch Editing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)