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Afghanistan: Tribal Leaders Back Karzai's U.S. Strategic Partnership

By Ron Synovitz

Afghan President Hamid Karzai left Kabul on Monday on official business that will take him to Europe and the United States during the next week. His aides say he will meet with NATO leaders and U.S. President George W. Bush to discuss a long-term strategic partnership -- including the possibility of a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Before his departure, Karzai called together more than 1,000 tribal leaders from across the country yesterday to ask for their support. Approval from the advisory council -- which includes many representatives of Afghanistan's constitutional Loya Jirga -- is not mandatory. But as RFE/RL reports, the move helps Karzai's credibility as he starts formal negotiations in the absence of an Afghan parliament:

Prague, 9 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The hundreds of tribal leaders who gathered at the presidential palace in Kabul yesterday supported Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plans to start formal talks about a "long-term strategic partnership" with the United States and NATO.

Karzai's spokesman, Jawed Ludin, says the consultations with tribal leaders has confirmed that most Afghans want a "long-term strategic partnership" with the United States. Ludin says the backing of the leaders strengthens Karzai's position as he begins formal talks this week in Europe and then travels on to Washington for a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush.

"One of the issues that was brought up by the majority of the [tribal leaders] was that the president, according to the Afghan constitution, does have the mandate to take a decision in this particular issue [of long-term strategic partnerships with the United States and NATO], or any other issue. According the constitution, any decision or decree from the president, or any agreement he signs on such matters, must be ratified by the parliament. Therefore, the issue [must go through the parliament in the end]," Ludin said.

Ludin explained that Karzai cannot afford to delay the start of formal negotiations with Washington on the issue until later this year when a parliament is created through elections in September. He says the tribal leaders were happy to be consulted at this point in time.

"The other issue that was stressed [by the tribal leaders yesterday] was that in any negotiations with the United States or any other country, the Afghan government should not concentrate only on military aid. Attention also should be paid to the political and economic spheres because Afghanistan, more than anything else, needs economic help to rebuild its war-damaged infrastructure," Ludin said.

Karzai had announced a similar position two weeks ago when he told reporters in Kabul that any deal on a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan should be linked to a broader strategic relationship.

"I don't think that creating a base [on its own] would be in the interest of Afghanistan. We don't want only bases. [The United States] has bases in Kyrgyzstan that were set up in exchange for some financial support [from Washington]. But [the United States] hasn't made other kinds of commitments to Kyrgyzstan. We want a commitment from the United States for help -- and to prevent the possibility of foreign interventions so that when their interest in Afghanistan decreases, the situation will not return to the way it was 10 or 15 or even five years ago. We want political, economic, and security commitments. That can't be fulfilled only by the creation of [U.S. military] bases," Karzai said.

Interviews with ordinary Afghans conducted by RFE/RL correspondents in recent days suggest that most people agree with the conclusions of Karzai and the tribal leaders.

Janek Zaran is a professor at the University of Nangarhar in Jalal-Abad.

"As for the forces of America, ISAF, and NATO, I can say that the UN-mandated forces and the Americans should stay in Afghanistan until dependable security is achieved here -- and until the people are satisfied with their security. We don't want what happened in Iraq to be repeated in our country," Zaran said.

Jean MacKenzie, the Kabul-based Afghan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, told RFE/RL today that Karzai's decision to consult the tribal leaders is a way to insulate his government from future criticisms on the issue by his detractors.

"It's very important that Karzai seeks at least the appearance of a popular mandate for his actions. Karzai is eager to avoid the appearance that he is going off to the United States and to Europe to make some sort of deal with those states at the expense of, or without consulting, his own people back in Afghanistan," MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie says yesterday's consultations were necessary because it could be well past the September elections before both chambers of Afghanistan's bi-cameral parliament are created.

"The tribal leaders are, on the one hand, eager to be consulted. But on the other hand, they freely admit that they don't have much authority at this point in time. This is the type of question that should be referred to parliament. But since Karzai is now ruling in the absence of a parliament, the only way he can get any support for any initiatives is to call tribal leaders together," MacKenzie said.

Karzai's schedule in Europe calls for him to first address the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France before traveling on to Belgium for meetings with NATO leaders. From Belgium, he is due to fly to Washington for a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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