KABUL, Nov 16: President Hamid Karzai outlined conditions for a long-term US troop presence in Afghanistan on Wednesday at a major gathering of elders debating the country's future after Nato combat forces leave.

Karzai told day one of the loya jirga that he wanted Afghan-US relations to be those of “two independent countries” and assured neighbouring countries that a long-term deal would not affect their ties with Afghanistan.

He convened the four-day jirga to secure backing for a strategic partnership deal with the United States currently under negotiation which will govern Afghan-American relations after Nato combat forces withdraw in 2014.

With the Taliban threatening to disrupt the jirga, a senior security official said that two security threats against the event had been thwarted but declined to give details.

The defence ministry said a would-be suicide bomber was also arrested in Kabul, although it did not explicitly link this to the jirga.

With the strategic partnership far from being finalised, the outcome of the jirga non-binding and political opponents staying away, some critics accuse Mr Karzai of mere posturing in calling the event.

“We want our national sovereignty and we want it today,” President Karzai told 2,200 delegates who gathered in Kabul. “We want our relationship with America to be one of two independent countries.”

He called on the US to stop night raids and disband international bodies — such as combined civilian-military reconstruction teams which play a governmental role — as conditions of the deal.

But if Washington meets demands such as these, Mr Karzai said Afghanistan was prepared to host US troops in the long-term. “If they want military installations, we will allow them, it is in our benefit, money will come to us and our forces will be trained,” he said.

“Do we need their help? Yes we do, but on condition that Afghanistan should not be trampled.”

Washington insists it is not seeking a “permanent” military presence in Afghanistan, saying it is looking to help Afghan security forces with intelligence sharing, air power and logistics beyond 2014. US officials say a deal could involve shared facilities with Afghan forces.

Mr Karzai also reassured Afghanistan's neighbours, many of whom are concerned about a long-term US influence in the region, that any strategic partnership deal would not hamper relations with them. “Afghanistan sees its national interest in having good relations with neighbours and want our independence to have good relations with neighbours such as China, Russia and others,” he said.

Those attending the jirga faced multiple security checks with presidential guards posted on the roof of the sturdy tent and police on maximum alert.

The Taliban said those supporting a long-term US presence in Afghanistan would be considered “traitors” and “deserving of harsh penalties”.

The militia are not formally represented at the event, but jirga spokeswoman Safia Sediqi said some individual Taliban supporters may be representing local communities. “We welcome everyone,” she added.—AFP

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