Afghan President Hamid Karzai has urged a gathering of Afghan elders to approve a security agreement with the United States, saying the deal would allow 10,000 to 15,000 foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan after the NATO pullout next year.
He also said U.S. troops would only be able to enter Afghan homes in exceptional cases -- a point of contention over nearly a year of negotiations on the agreement.
Hours before the meeting, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the two sides had agreed on the final text of the bilateral security pact.
The gathering of Afghan elders, known as a "Loya Jirga," is expected to spend three days debating the agreement, which will shape the security relationship between Washington and Kabul for years to come. The group must give its approval before the document goes to the Afghan parliament for a vote.
The group can revise or reject any clause of the draft agreement, and a flat-out rejection would most likely prevent the Afghan government from signing it.
Security in Kabul is high, with offices closed and dozens of checkpoints set up along the route leading to the site of the meeting. Taliban insurgents, who have staged a 12-year rebellion in Afghanistan, have condemned the meeting and threatened to target the delegates if a deal is approved.
On Tuesday, Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi said the two sides had agreed to allow U.S. raids on Afghan homes if President Barack Obama wrote a letter acknowledging mistakes by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. However, Kerry disputed this, and maintained that Karzai did not ask the U.S. to apologize for civilian casualties.
The so-called Bilateral Security Agreement is seen as vital to lasting peace in the war-torn nation, where the United Nations said the Taliban insurgency this year reached levels of violence not seen since 2010.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Afghanistan's election commission announced the final list of candidates for next year's presidential poll, which will be the country's first-ever democratic transfer of power.
Karzai, who was appointed to the presidency following the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, must step down after serving two terms.
Afghan presidential candidate Mohammad Daud Sultanzoy said that he believes the U.S- Afghan agreement is important to Afghanistan's future.
"For us to stand on our own feet, we need alliances… It's best to have those alliances regulated, and this is a regulated attempt to conduct our matters in a manner that we know what to expect," said Sultanzoy.
Sultanzoy also pointed out that the United States has similar security deals with other countries.
"The United States has such deals with Japan and Germany and Korea, so why not for Afghanistan? That is something - but the people of Afghanistan do not know about that and nobody has talked about it, and Mr. Kerry, erroneously I think, mentioned that 'we have no such deals with any other country' - that is not true. We have Afghans who know that that is not true, so the U.S. has those kinds of deals with other countries, and why shouldn't they treat Afghanistan the same way?" asked Sultanzoy.
The Loya Jirga is set to vote on the agreement on Sunday.