Karzai Faces Opposition to Giving U.S. Troops Immunity

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s effort to grant immunity from prosecution to any U.S. troops who remain in his country after 2014 is meeting opposition from some tribal elders.

The prospect of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan to train Afghan troops and conduct counterterrorism operations beyond the end of next year will depend on whether Karzai wins support from a “loya jirga,” a national assembly of elders.

Karzai faces resistance from leaders from southern Afghanistan, an area of Taliban strength, who contend that immunity would undermine Afghan sovereignty and permit American abuses to go unpunished under Afghan law.

“With 11 years of war in Afghanistan, the U.S. troops have committed heavy crimes, such as the last year’s killing of 17 Afghan civilians,” Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a senior tribal elder in southern Helmand province, said in a telephone interview. “The killer should have been hanged, but still he is under U.S. prosecution.”

He may have been referring to the case of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who was flown out of Afghanistan to face military prosecution for allegedly killing 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, in two southern Afghanistan villages last year. The premeditated murder charges against him could carry the death penalty.

“I personally don’t agree that U.S. troops should have immunity from Afghan law, as this will let their troops commit more crimes in Afghanistan,” the Afghan elder said. “But we also have a weak and corrupted justice system to prosecute U.S. troops.”

Islamic Law

Barekzai Kharoti, the head of the Helmand provincial council and a senior tribal elder, said that while he opposes immunity, he sees a continuing need for American security forces.

“We want any remaining U.S. troops to be prosecuted under our Islamic Afghan law, not under non-Islamic U.S. law, if they commit any crimes in our country,” Kharoti said in a telephone interview. “The U.S. may not agree on this, but their troops’ presence is also necessary for our future security.”

Karzai said Jan. 14 that he would convene a loya jirga to decide whether to grant immunity from Afghan prosecution to U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan. The failure to negotiate a similar agreement with the Iraqi government led to the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from that country at the end of 2011.

National Convention

Karzai last convened such a meeting of elders in November 2011, when he won support for negotiating a strategic security pact with the U.S.

He said he would hold such a national gathering again before accepting an accord that would include an immunity provision.

“The Afghan government can’t decide on this,” Karzai said. “The people of Afghanistan will decide on this, so a huge loya jirga will be convened to take a decision.”

Edris Rahmani, a Kabul-based political analyst, said in a telephone interview that he expects that Karzai “will convince the elders by using his political power to make a positive decision.”

Rahmani said Karzai may seek to strengthen his political hand by seeking other concessions from the U.S. and securing American backing for his choice as a candidate to succeed him in presidential elections planned for April 2014.

Afghans Leading

The U.S. has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of a force of 102,000 that includes members from nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged that the bulk of those troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2014, and the Australian government said yesterday that most of its troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Obama said at a Jan. 11 news conference with Karzai that Afghan forces will take over the lead security role for their country within a few months, sooner than planned. The U.S. and Afghanistan are discussing the size of the residual force, contingent on receiving immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts.

“Nowhere do we have any kind of security agreement with a country without immunity for our troops,” Obama said. “It will not be possible for us to have any kind of U.S. troop presence post-2014 without assurances” of such protection.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on Jan. 14, following a visit to Afghanistan, that at least 10,000 U.S. troops should remain “to provide adequate training and counterterrorism in the post-2014 period, and we anticipate forces from other countries who will remain here beyond 2014 as well.”

Weighing Options

Obama and White House advisers said last week, amid negotiations over an immunity agreement, that the administration was still weighing options and wouldn’t rule out bringing all U.S. troops home.

The Taliban said yesterday that the presence of U.S. forces after 2014 -- regardless of the immunity issue -- would be a signal for continuing war.

“As we said before, if Karzai and the Kabul regime agree to the presence of even a single American soldier,” then they would be “responsible for all future hostilities, casualties and destruction,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the movement’s spokesman, said in a telephone interview.

Islamic law cannot not allow any non-Islamic countries to “have military bases, or any type of military presence,” he said.

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