KABUL, Afghanistan — A four-day gathering of more than 2,000 influential Afghan elders began Wednesday to consider what framework should guide future relations with the United States, with President Hamid Karzai calling for a strong partnership "but with conditions" aimed at preserving Afghanistan's "national sovereignty."
Among the limits, Karzai told the opening session of the so-called "loya jirga," or grand assembly of elders, should be an end to night raids on Afghan homes, a tactic that U.S. officials say has been crucial to capturing Taliban and al Qaida operatives, and the elimination of American-operated prisons in the country.
Some Afghan parliamentarians have questioned the legitimacy of the assembly and called it unconstitutional, because it sidelines the Afghan parliament. But Karzai attempted to calm that criticism by stressing in his speech that the meeting would serve as an advisory gathering and that the verdict of the meeting would be sent to the Afghan parliament for approval. Karzai also tried to cut off concerns that the meeting was intended to lead to a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for a third term.
"This jirga is only for the partnership and peace, nothing else," Karzai said.
"I need your view and I need your advice," Karzai told the delegates. "In the light of your advice, we will take those important steps to reach our goals."
Included in the meetings were members of parliament, tribal elders, members of provincial councils and representatives of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. The delegates are to be divided into 40 committees to discuss the issues.
With the U.S.-led international security forces set to leave Afghanistan in 2014, the meeting underscores growing concern about what will happen afterward. The Afghan economy is heavily dependent on international aid, and the Karzai government is trying to keep that assistance flowing by signing agreements with other countries.
"In 2014 when the transition process is completed and the foreigners leave, it will only be us," Karzai said. "We will need international aid. We don't want to be left alone again, but their assistance should be based on some conditions."
Karzai also said that his government is in working on similar partnerships with France, Britain, Australia and the European Union.
In a statement, the Taliban denounced the meeting as a plot by foreigners to occupy Afghanistan and vowed to disrupt it.
"The United States wants to obtain documentation for a perpetual occupation of Afghanistan under the name of strategic partnership," the statement said.
The meeting started amid fears of Taliban insurgent attacks, and Afghan security forces were on high alert. At least half of the capital was in complete lockdown, and additional checkpoints were set up around the city.
Concerns about the security of the meeting and the delegates grew over the weekend after the Taliban leaked what it said was a 27-page Afghan government security plan for the meeting, which included troop deployments, telephone numbers and names of the Afghan security forces that were involved in providing security for the meeting.
The U.S.-led coalition denied the authenticity of the document.
(Zohori is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter