Afghanistan wants the United States and NATO to agree to stop carrying out night raids on Afghan homes as a precondition to signing a partnership deal with Washington, President Hamid Karzai said on Wednesday.
Night raids, which foreign troops say are one of their most effective weapons in the fight against insurgents, are a major cause of friction between Karzai and his Western backers. The Afghan leader has said repeatedly he wants them stopped.
We want a strategic partnership but with specific conditions: our national integrity, no night raids, no house searches, Karzai told a meeting of around 2,000 Afghan political and community leaders in the capital city Kabul.
The strategic partnership agreement, still under discussion between Washington and Kabul, will govern American involvement in Afghanistan after the deadline for the exit of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Afghanistan is also negotiating similar agreements with Britain, France, Australia and the European Union, Karzai said.
A September report by social research groups said the number of night raids, and the confusion caused by darkness, means they often pose a disproportionate risk to civilians.
The rules covering night raids, used to target insurgents who hide among the Afghan population, 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 have been seen as a chief stumbling block in efforts to seal the bilateral deal.
We understand President Karzai's concerns. That said, night raids have been a very effective tool in protecting Afghans as well as coalition forces, a U.S. defence official said on condition of anonymity.
The official said the raids were important to keep the enemy on its heels and we think they should continue.
Karzai was speaking on the first day of a four-day meeting, known as a loya jirga, or grand assembly. The jirga is consultative rather than legislative, but it is discussing 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.
They (the. U.S.) want military installations, we will give them. It is in our national interest (and) will draw more money and training of our soldiers, Karzai said.
The Taliban, who say they will not engage in peace talks until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan, have dismissed the meeting as a ploy to rubber-stamp what they see as foreign interference.
They have already tried to disrupt the gathering, even though Kabul is under a security lockdown for the meeting.
On Monday, security forces shot dead a suicide bomber before he could set off his explosives near the site of the jirga.
In June last year, insurgents disrupted the start of a peace jirga, firing rockets at the tent where the gathering was held in the west of the Afghan capital. No one was hurt.
Despite the presence of more than 130,000 foreign soldiers, violence across Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, according to the United Nations.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says there has recently been a fall in the number of attacks by insurgents, but that data excludes attacks that kill only civilians and attacks on Afghan security forces operating without international troops.
Karzai, who switched between speaking Afghanistan's Pashto and Dari languages when addressing the jirga, likened Afghans to lions on several occasions.
Americans are more powerful, have more money, a greater population, but we are the lions, he said, bringing applause from delegates.
(Additional reporting by Missy Ryan in Washington; writing by Daniel Magnowski; Editing by Paul Tait)