Kabul: About 2,000 Afghan community and political leaders will gather on Wednesday in Kabul under tight security for four days of deliberations on the country`s most pressing issues, including ties with main ally the United States.
The meeting, known as a loya jirga, or grand assembly, cannot make laws, and whatever it decides has to be approved by parliament, but the subjects up for debate are among the most sensitive: the scope of a U.S. military presence after a 2014 deadline for foreign combat troops to leave and the idea of peace talks with the Taliban.
The Taliban, who have long fought to oust foreign forces, have dismissed the meeting as a ruse to cement what they see as foreign interference and have already tried to disrupt it. They have vowed to target participants and said they had a copy of the jirga security plan.
On Monday, security forces shot dead a suicide bomber before he could set off his explosives near the site of the jirga.
"The loya jirga will discuss mainly two agendas: one will be regarding the strategic partnership deal with U.S. and another (will be) about the peace process," said Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, national security adviser to President Hamid Karzai.
Jirga means gathering in the Pashto language and the assemblies of mostly bearded, turbaned notables are a tradition among the Pashtun tribes of the south and east.
Grand gatherings, or loyal jirgas, have been called throughout Afghan history to discuss weighty affairs that affect the country`s various ethnic groups and tribes.
Karzai, who is negotiating a strategic partnership with the United States, will have had his position strengthened by Tuesday`s announcement that the International Monetary Fund has approved a $133.6 million loan program, marking a fresh start to ties strained since last year by a bank corruption scandal.
"The strategic plan is the big agenda. In the jirga they will discuss economic development ... foreign troops` existence in Afghanistan, security, night raids and many more issues which are part of the deal," said Safiullah Zeer, an organizer of the meeting.
Night raids are one of the most hated foreign military tactics in Afghanistan and a cause of friction between Western nations and Karzai, who has said he wants them stopped.
A September report by social research groups said the number of raids, and confusion caused by darkness means they often pose a disproportionate risk to civilians.
Leave the car at home
Roads leading to the hall in which deliberations will be held, near the Polytechnic University, about 10 km (six miles) from central Kabul, have been closed to normal traffic.
Dozens of extra Afghan security guards are patrolling the streets, performing body searches and in some cases removing turbans to check for explosives.
Hundreds of commuters have been forced to leave their cars at home and walk or cycle to work -- for some an inconvenience, for others a few days of respite from the overcrowded city`s dust-churning traffic.
Last year, insurgents fired four rockets at a tent in which a "peace jirga" was being held. They all fell short, but the attack was followed by a raid by three insurgents wearing suicide-bomb vests.
Some in Kabul believe those attending this week are risking their safety needlessly, and expect little of substance to come from the meeting.
"Either you would want to have an agreement sorted out (with the United States) so they could discuss it and ratify it, or you would want a discussion that would give red lines or mandate the government in such a way that it would have a national consensus for negotiating," said Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
"We are definitely not going to see a draft document. And as this is a jirga of selected delegates, we can`t expect this to be a forum for thrashing out difficult issues."
The loya jirga is the latest meeting to discuss Afghanistan, after a low-impact regional gathering in Istanbul this month, and ahead of an international conference in Germany in December.
The format is not ideally suited to taking tough decisions.