KABUL The future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 will be decided by an assembly of tribal elders in late November, its organizers said, setting a date for the verdict on a long-delayed bilateral deal held up by disputes over key provisions.
A draft pact known as the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was hammered out in Kabul last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But he left without a final deal as Afghan President Hamid Karzai said only the assembly, the Loya Jirga, had the authority to decide contentious issues.
These include a U.S. demand to retain legal jurisdiction over its troops in Afghanistan, which would give them immunity from Afghan law. The request appeared to have been resolved this summer, but emerged as the main sticking point after Kerry's visit.
"The BSA is very important, it has many details and has several chapters over 32 pages," Sadeq Mudaber, one of the organizers, told a meeting with journalists and dignitaries.
"Now it is time to present it to the people of Afghanistan with all its details and get their consultation on it."
The United States says it cannot agree to a deal unless it is granted the right to try in the United States its citizens who break the law in Afghanistan.
The tentative date set for the Loya Jirga, Nov 19-21, will further test U.S. patience. Officials previously said they wanted the BSA in place by the end of October to give the U.S.-led NATO coalition of troops time to implement plans for 2015.
If approved by the assembly, the draft will be submitted to parliament. If it passes both as expected, the deal will pave the way for a decision on how many U.S. and other troops remain in Afghanistan after next year.
If approval is not forthcoming, the United States has said it will pull out all of its troops by the end of next year, an outcome known as the "zero option".
U.S. officials have in recent months raised the possibility, with an implicit warning that Afghan security forces are not ready to fight the Taliban-led insurgency without their help.
Doubts are beginning to appear that sticking points have finally been laid to rest.
Few details have emerged from either side on the agreement reached on an Afghan request for protection from foreign aggression - an allusion to attacks along its border with Pakistan.
This silence on the issue has prompted some Western diplomats to suggest that the deal may meet resistance on the Pakistani border issue rather than other matters.
The hand-picked assembly is, however, expected to align itself with the government and has previously indicated it favored a deal with the United States.
"Security was a part of the previous Jirga and has been already been decided on," Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a prominent figure in the Jirga, told the gathering.
"I told him (Karzai) that he can sign it and if there is any problem he can solve it with Americans by negotiating."
Some members have, however, already made it plain they will oppose the U.S. request for immunity from Afghan prosecution.
"If this pact is signed, it means giving a license to infidels to kill Muslims," said Qazi Nazir Anafi, a lawmaker and senior member of the top religious panel, the Ulema Council.
The collapse of similar talks between the United States and Iraq in 2011 - partly over the issue of immunity - led to the United States completely ending its forces' mission there.
(Additional reporting and writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Ron Popeski)