President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday outlined a string of conditions for long-term US bases in Afghanistan at a major gathering of elders debating the country's future and peace efforts with the Taliban.
Karzai told day one of the loya jirga that he wanted Afghan-US relations to be those of "two independent countries" and assured neighbours such as China and Russia that a long-term deal would not affect their ties with Afghanistan.
Karzai convened the four-day jirga to discuss a strategic partnership deal with the United States, currently under negotiation with Washington, which will govern Afghan-American relations after NATO combat forces leave in 2014.
But with the strategic partnership some way from being finalised, the outcome of the jirga non-binding and political opponents staying away, critics accuse Karzai of little more than posturing in calling the event.
The Taliban have also threatened to target the loya jirga, which is shrouded in tight security.
"We want our national sovereignty and we want it today," Karzai told up to 2,000 delegates gathered at the jirga in Kabul. "We want our relationship with America to be one of two independent countries."
Karzai called on the US to stop night raids and disband international bodies -- such as combined civilian-military reconstruction teams -- which carry out Afghan government functions as conditions of the deal.
But if Washington meets demands such as these, Karzai said Afghanistan was prepared to host US troops in the long-term.
"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," he said.
Washington insists it is not seeking a "permanent" military presence in Afghanistan, saying instead it is looking to help Afghan security forces with intelligence sharing, air power and logistics beyond 2014.
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."
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 at the jirga would be considered "traitors" and "deserving of harsh penalties".
Some of the elders taking part said they had received threatening text messages.
On Monday, a suspected suicide bomber carrying a bag of explosives was shot dead near the jirga venue, a day after the Taliban leaked a supposed security plan for the event. Afghan and Western officials said it was a fake.
The US-Afghan strategic partnership, which diplomats hoped would be concluded by now, will govern ties between the two countries after 2014.
But talks are thought to have snagged on issues including the extent of US support for Afghan security forces, which will take full responsibility for the country's security in three years, and base rights for American forces.
The jirga is also set to discuss a strategy for peace talks after the assassination of Karzai's peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani in September.
But Karzai made only brief reference to it being "necessary for our people to live in peace" adding that "we are in talks with our brothers about it... your advice in this regards will be respected."
The president said in a statement Tuesday that he would announce details of the second wave of places to transition from NATO to Afghan security control but made no mention of this in his speech.
Karzai is using the jirga to secure a "very general mandate" to pursue negotiations with the US, according to one Western diplomat.
Key figures, such as Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, and former ally, Soviet-era warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, are boycotting the event as "unconstitutional" amid concerns over how delegates were appointed.
Analysts say a lack of transparency in the jirga's agenda has provoked some suspicion about Karzai's motives for going ahead with it.
"The delegates themselves have been left mystified as to what exactly they will be discussing and why," wrote Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a blog post Wednesday.