Afghan political and community leaders support the idea of a strategic partnership deal that will govern Afghanistan's relationship with the United States, they said on Saturday, but with caveats that could prove tough obstacles to surmount.
A declaration made after a meeting of around 2,000 delegates said they wanted foreign troops to stop carrying out night raids -- one of the most hated military tactics in Afghanistan -- and that they opposed the idea of a permanent American military presence in the country.
The four-day meeting in the capital city Kabul, known as a loya jirga, or grand assembly, is not a lawmaking body, but its participants have discussed some of the most sensitive subjects in Afghanistan: the scope of a U.S. military presence after 2014, and the idea of peace talks with the Taliban.
Your declaration ... was comprehensive and acceptable, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the jirga after the declaration was read.
The strategic partnership agreement, which Washington and Kabul are still negotiating, will be the framework for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan beyond 2014, when the last foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan.
All conditions and suggestions you proposed were for the national interest. The Afghan defence and interior ministers must come up with a plan so that we fund our own troops in the long term. Foreigners are not going to give money forever, Karzai said in a brief closing address.
While foreign combat troops must leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, there will still be an international military presence after then, with Western experts continuing to train Afghan security forces.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle attended Saturday's session. Next month, the German city of Bonn will host a major international conference on the future of Afghanistan.
No strategic partnership will be signed unless (it is) in line with our national interest, there won't be anything hidden, Karzai said.
On Wednesday, the first day of the jirga, Karzai said Afghanistan wants the United States and NATO to agree to stop carrying out night raids on Afghan homes as a precondition for signing a partnership deal with Washington.
The rules covering night raids and air strikes have been tightened considerably over the past two years but they still cause great resentment among ordinary Afghans.
The raids, along with Afghans' desire for a timeline to assume control over detention centres, are seen as the main obstacles to sealing the bilateral deal.
Afghanistan is also negotiating similar agreements with Britain, France, Australia and the European Union.
Highlighting Afghan unease about night raids, two Afghan police officers were killed in a clash with foreign troops who were conducting such a raid southwest of Kabul on Saturday.
Many Afghans have questioned the usefulness of the jirga, which is sandwiched between the Bonn conference and a low-impact regional meeting on Afghanistan in Istanbul earlier this month.
(Writing by Daniel Magnowski; Editing by Paul Tait)