Immunity from prosecution for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan by that nation’s government and control over the detention of Afghan suspects may top the agenda when President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai meet in Washington next month.
“The question of immunity for U.S. troops is of tremendous importance to the U.S.,” Karzai said yesterday at a news conference in Kabul with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “We in Afghanistan have certain important issues as well,” including “question of detentions and taking of detainees that directly touch on Afghan sovereignty.”
Panetta said Karzai had accepted Obama’s invitation to visit Washington during the week of Jan. 7. The U.S. and Afghanistan are attempting to negotiate a “status of forces agreement” for an American military contingent to provide air support, training and other assistance after 2014, when Obama has pledged to remove most of the 66,000 U.S. forces now in the country.
The U.S. pulled its remaining troops out of Iraq last year after failing to reach an accord on immunity.
Before “I can go to the Afghan people and speak on the subject of U.S. troops’ immunity,” Karzai said yesterday he needs agreement in a continuing dispute over whether the U.S. can hold Afghan suspects as well as assurances that the U.S. will protect Afghanistan’s interests in the region and help build its military forces.
Panetta, who visited Kabul and Kandahar, met with U.S. commanders in the country to assess progress in training Afghan military and police forces to take over the war against insurgents after 2014.
U.S. Marine General John Allen, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, is preparing proposals on the pace of troop withdrawals. Panetta has said the decision may be made within weeks.
U.S. commanders offered reporters traveling with Panetta a mostly upbeat assessment of improving Afghan military capabilities and waning enemy attacks.
The continuing threat of insurgent attacks was underscored yesterday when a U.S. soldier died and three soldiers were hurt in a suicide car-bomb attack near Kandahar, hours after Panetta left the air base there. A number of Afghans also were injured in the attack.
The insurgents are resorting to such attacks even as the Afghan army and police are trying to secure large populated areas, Panetta said.
“They are trying to stimulate chaos in the country, but they will not be successful,” he said.
The attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, came a few hours after Army Major General Robert Abrams, commander of the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command-South based in Kandahar, told reporters that the “security conditions are getting better every single day and will continue to get better.”
The assessment contrasted with a Pentagon report on Dec. 10 that said insurgent safe havens in northwest Pakistan prevent Afghanistan and its U.S.-led allies from achieving a “decisive defeat” of the enemy.
“The Taliban-led insurgency and its al-Qaeda affiliates still operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan,” according to the report’s executive summary. “The insurgency’s safe havens in Pakistan, the limited institutional capacity of the Afghan government and endemic corruption remain the greatest risks to long-term stability and sustainable security in Afghanistan.”
The area overseen by the regional command shares a 550-kilometer (342-mile) border with Pakistan, so the entire border couldn’t be covered even if every Afghan soldier in the region were placed “shoulder-to-shoulder,” Abrams said.
He said the Taliban’s capabilities were “pretty limited” and “they have failed at every one of their objectives.” The insurgent group, whose home base is Kandahar, has tried and failed to regain territory, Abrams said.
Asked if such success might lead to an accelerated drawdown of U.S. forces in 2013, Abrams said, “The terrain to the west and south is the most important and decisive terrain for Kandahar. And the enemy, even though he’s pushed out, is coming back and is going to continue what I call the drumbeat to maintain his relevance and get back into the communities.”
While the Pentagon report said only one of 23 Afghan brigades was ranked as capable of operating independently with advisers, Afghan forces are now taking the lead in most operations, U.S. Marine Corps Major General Lawrence Nicholson told reporters Dec. 12 in Kabul.
The international security force “is not doing ops,” Nicholson, said referring to military operations. The Afghan National Security Forces are carrying out operations and “we’re supporting,” he said.
After 2014, U.S. troops remaining in the country will probably be responsible only for close-air support because the Afghan air force is still weak, Nicholson said. “We have 24 months to get that right.”