More than 2,000 Afghan politicians, tribal leaders, and clerics have assembled in Kabul for four days of debate on the future of the foreign military presence in the country and negotiations with the Taliban.
Security was tight for the opening of the traditional assembly of elders, known as a "loya jirga," following a thwarted attack earlier this week on the jirga tent and Taliban threats against participants.
The run-up to the event has also been accompanied by political bickering over a draft security strategy agreement between Kabul and Washington that will outline the U.S. military role in Afghanistan ahead of a planned drawdown in 2014, as well as the issue of whether to negotiate with the Taliban.
The government is depending on the loya jirga to help gauge national opinion on the two contentious issues.
In his opening address, Afghan President Hamid Karzai stressed the importance of the tasks at hand and told delegates that it was their "mandate to advise the Afghan government and its leaders on how to move forward with the peace process."
Kabul suspended efforts to negotiate with the Taliban after a purported Taliban suicide bomber killed former top peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani in September.
On the issue of cooperation with the United States and NATO, Karzai left the door open but "with conditions."
"We want our national sovereignty and we want it today," he told the forum. "We want our relationship with America to be one of two independent countries."
Some 2,000 community and political leaders are attending the four-day assembly.
The Afghan president singled out night raids by U.S. troops and the detention of Afghans as topics for discussion, and also said the goal should be to avoid "parallel structures alongside our government."
Karzai had been expected to announce the next phase of the effort to have Afghan forces take responsibility for security of Afghan territory, but he shed no light on the next cities or regions designated for the handover.
"One of the key challenges for Afghanistan is to reach the year 2014 [and its aftermath]," he said. "At that time, Afghanistan will take full responsibility for the security of its territory and its people through its youth and national security institutions. This process began a few months ago when some provinces were handed over to the Afghan security institutions."
Strategic Alliance With Washington
The draft security agreement worked out between Kabul and Washington is intended to update the current agreement to set terms for after 2014, when most U.S. and NATO operations are expected to be completed.
Observers suggest that Kabul's strategic alliance with Washington is crucial to its future survival, but the possibility of a longer-term U.S. troop presence has also attracted criticism within Afghanistan and in neighboring countries.
"If they want military bases, we will allow them. It is in our benefit. Money will come to us and our forces will be trained," Karzai said.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported from Kabul that the loya jirga will break into 40 subcommittees later on November 16. Recommendations from these groups will be presented and debated in the general gathering in the coming days.
written by Abubakar Siddique, with agency reports