Afghan President Hamid Karzai hailed a pact to keep U.S. troops in the country after 2014, telling national leaders meeting to assess the agreement that it would bring stability to the war-torn nation.
As many as 15,000 troops from the U.S., Turkey, United Arab Emirates and other countries would remain in Afghanistan through 2024, Karzai said at the opening of a loya jirga, a meeting of 3,000 intellectuals, tribal leaders and international guests that began today. The body will debate the pact over the next few days before taking a vote on Nov. 24.
The deal will “help strengthen our Afghan forces, bolster our economy and boost stability,” Karzai said. “Pulling out international forces after 2014 without an agreement signed with the U.S. is not beneficial for us.”
While President Barack Obama’s administration intends to remove all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, the tentative agreement would permit some American forces to remain to train Afghan soldiers and conduct counterterrorism operations. At stake is billions of dollars in annual aid money and greater security throughout South Asia.
Tribal elders “may ask for some wordsmithing, but I imagine the draft is largely final, absent an external shock,” Caroline Wadhams, a senior fellow and Afghanistan specialist at the Center for American Progress, said in an e-mail. “At this point, I don’t believe the loya jirga will add further demands or conditions for the U.S. government.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. wants to have the agreement completed and signed as quickly as possible so allied forces have time to make post-2014 plans. “Sooner rather than later is essential,” Psaki told reporters today in Washington.
She was responding to a comment by Karzai suggesting that the pact be signed after Afghan presidential elections scheduled for April. A delay until next year is “neither practical nor possible,” Psaki said.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted the text of the agreement, which will remain in force through 2024, on its website. No matching documents were available on the U.S. State Department’s website.
The Obama administration has yet to decide how many troops to keep in Afghanistan beyond 2014, U.S. according to an official who asked not to be identified. It foresees completing the mission to train Afghan forces and defeat al-Qaeda’s remnants well before 2024, the official said.
“America’s role in Afghanistan will be one of a supporting partner,” Obama wrote yesterday in a letter to Karzai, according to a copy posted on the Afghan president’s official website. The number of U.S. forces would be “much reduced” after 2014, Obama wrote, without naming a figure.
The U.S. now has 48,000 troops in the country, and the coalition of allies has an additional 27,000, according to the U.S. Defense Department. Since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. has lost 2,155 troops in the war and an additional 19,475 have been wounded in action, according to Pentagon data compiled by Bloomberg.
Talks about a long-term U.S. troop presence began after Karzai and Obama signed an accord in May 2012 that committed the U.S. to supporting and training the Afghan military. Sticking points have included U.S. insistence on immunity for its troops from prosecution under local laws and Afghan demands for a guarantee that the U.S. would defend it against external threats, mostly from militants based in neighboring Pakistan.
“During my 10 years of work, I’ve certainly come to know that peace in Afghanistan is in the hands of the U.S. and Pakistan,” Karzai said today. “That’s why we came to an agreement with the U.S. on the security pact.”
Afghanistan has conceded the U.S. right to prosecute its troops under American law, according to the text of the agreement, which listed 26 articles that cover issues ranging from prosecution to registration of vehicles.
Karzai told the loya jirga today that he had proposed language saying that U.S. troops couldn’t enter Afghan homes or jail locals living in rural areas. Secretary of State John Kerry told him last night that it would be a deal breaker if U.S. troops couldn’t enter Afghan homes to save the lives of soldiers captured by insurgents, Karzai said.
“We came in an agreement in almost the whole part of the pact except the matter of U.S. troops’ immunity,” Karzai said. “I said to the U.S that issue is out of the government’s authority and that the Afghan people have the authority” to decide through the loya jirga, he said.
The agreement says the U.S. will conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliates with the goal of maintaining Afghan security forces in the lead “with full respect for Afghan sovereignty and full regard for the safety and security of the Afghan people, including in their homes.”
A separate part of the agreement says that U.S. forces, while allowed to control access to the facilities they occupy, “shall not target Afghan civilians, including in their homes.”
Obama’s letter said that U.S. troops will conduct raids on Afghan homes only “under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals.” Kerry yesterday dismissed reports that Obama would apologize for U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and the letter included no apology or statement of regret for U.S. actions.
“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure that Afghan homes are respected by our forces and that our operations are conducted consistent with your law,” Obama wrote. “We will continue to make every effort to respect the sanctity and dignity of Afghans in their homes and in their daily lives, just as we do for our own citizens.”
On external threats faced by Afghanistan, the pact says the two sides would “cooperate to strengthen Afghanistan’s defenses against such threats to its territorial integrity, sovereignty or political independence.”
Afghanistan agreed to provide the U.S. with access to nine bases at Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, Shorab in Helmand province, Gardez, Jalalabad and Shindand.
Maintaining foreign troops in the country would ensure security and also guarantee that international aid that has been pledged continues to flow, Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Nov. 19 at an event in Washington.
In the absence of such support, “if security deteriorates to a point” where the $6 billion in annual aid promised to Afghanistan “dries up, then they can’t survive,” Dempsey said.
If the loya jirga approves the agreement, it will head to the country’s parliament for endorsement. Karzai urged participants in the meeting to analyze the agreement in detail and make a decision.
“In this volatile situation, Afghanistan must have military and economic relations with the United States,” Jawed Munadi, a tribal elder from northern Balkh province who is participating in the loya jirga, said in an interview. “Without U.S. military and financial help, our weakened nation cannot operate.”