U.S. Nears Agreement With Afghanistan on Troops Post-2014

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said they were close to completing a security agreement that would allow some U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

After two days of negotiations in Kabul, both leaders said the remaining obstacle to concluding the deal is whether Afghan representatives will endorse the U.S. having legal jurisdiction over international forces accused of committing crimes in the country. Any agreement must be approved by both Afghanistan’s parliament and a council of elders, Karzai told reporters late on Oct. 12.

“We reached agreements,” he said at the presidential palace in Kabul after the two sides hammered out a draft text of the Bilateral Security Agreement, wrapping up talks 10 hours later than planned. Karzai said he received “written guarantees” from Kerry’s side that detailed the U.S.’s commitment to defend Afghanistan against an outside attack.

President Barack Obama has said U.S. troops won’t stay to train and assist Afghan forces after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization withdraws all combat units next year unless the U.S. has a security agreement that protects any remaining forces. Last year, he had set a goal of completing a deal by Oct. 31.

U.S. and Afghan officials involved in the talks said both sides agreed on the wording of a draft text. The next step is for a Loya Jirga, a national consultative assembly of tribal elders, to meet and consider the deal, a gathering that will probably take place next month.

Taliban Warning

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar warned of “grave consequences” for the U.S. and its allies if the agreement is signed, according to a statement sent to reporters today. Zabihullah Mujahed, a spokesman for the group, confirmed its authenticity by phone.

Omar cited the recent military overthrow of Egypt’s government helmed by the Muslim Brotherhood as evidence that the U.S. only respects election results when they suit its interests. Afghans won’t accept the security pact even if it gets approved by a Loya Jirga, Omar said.

“The invaders should know that their limited bases will never be accepted,” Omar said. “The current armed jihad will continue against them with more momentum.”

Soldier Jurisdiction

On Oct. 12, Kerry hailed a seeming breakthrough in negotiations that had been hung up on a handful of issues, including cooperation on counterterrorism operations and commitments by the U.S. to defend Afghanistan from attacks or cross-border incursions by militants from Pakistan.

“We have resolved in these last 24 hours the major issues that the president went through,” Kerry said in a joint briefing with Karzai. Earlier in the day he told U.S. Embassy staff in Kabul that an agreement “will put the Taliban on their heels.”

The top U.S. diplomat cautioned, though, that “if the issue of jurisdiction cannot be resolved, then, unfortunately, there cannot be a Bilateral Security Agreement.” The U.S. understands and respects Karzai’s need to present the draft to the council of elders and elected lawmakers to win approval on sensitive questions of sovereignty, he said.

The U.S. says a make-or-break condition for troops to stay on after 2014 to train, assist and conduct counterterrorism operations is that American forces be judged for any wrongdoing under U.S. rather than Afghan law, just as they are in Germany, Japan and wherever U.S. forces are stationed.

‘No Immunity’

Kerry insisted it’s false to suggest the U.S. is demanding immunity.

If any soldier “were to violate any law, as we have in the past, we will continue to prosecute to the full measure of that law, and any perpetrator of any incident, crime, anything, will be punished,” he said. “There is no immunity.”

Though Kerry did not cite examples, the highest-profile case is Robert Bales, a U.S. staff sergeant who went on a rampage and massacred 16 Afghans outside Kandahar in March 2011. Bales pleaded guilty in a U.S. military court to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Talks for a similar Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq broke down over the same issue of legal jurisdiction for U.S. troops, prompting Obama to withdraw U.S. forces at the end of 2011. Since then, Iraq has experienced resurgent sectarian violence.

Iraq Lesson

In part because of the turmoil that Iraq has experienced since U.S. forces left two years ago, some Afghan analysts are optimistic a Loya Jirga will ultimately agree to the accord.

It’s a “strategic opportunity” for Afghanistan to guarantee its security and a “strategic necessity” for the U.S. to protect its long-term interests and investments of money and lives in Afghanistan, Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, said by phone.

“It’s highly unlikely for both countries to walk away and disapprove the security accord,” Rahmani said. “Both will compromise over the disputed issues to ensure their interests.”

U.S. officials involved in the talks credited Kerry’s 12-year personal relationship with the two-time Afghan president with enabling Kerry to achieve a tentative agreement. While Karzai is notorious for clashing with other senior U.S. officials, including Obama, the Afghan leader’s relationship with Kerry has been described by both men as warm and respectful.

Karzai Satisfied

A State Department official who briefed reporters traveling on Kerry’s plane also credited his patience and persistence to resolve sticking points. The administration is satisfied with the language in a draft that Karzai approved, and recognizes there is no deal until the tribal council and parliament sign off, according to several officials involved in the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

Karzai was ultimately satisfied with assurances he had received from Kerry, according to an Afghan official involved in the discussions who spoke Oct. 12 on condition that he not be named to discuss internal deliberations. At the same time, the Afghan official said, popular sentiment on sovereignty issues related to foreign troops in Afghanistan is so strong that Karzai can’t sign a deal without approval from elders and lawmakers.

Foreign Aid

While Karzai and Kerry didn’t discuss the number of U.S. troops that might stay, a continued American military presence would provide intelligence, logistical and other support to Afghan forces after they take on sole responsibility for security.

The U.S. now has about 52,000 troops in Afghanistan, down 14,000 in the past six months. The Pentagon plans to reduce to 34,000 by February, and withdraw all combat forces out by the end of 2014.

Afghanistan needs security guaranteed by outside forces to attract and retain foreign aid. Aid accounts for more than 95 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

An agreement is “indispensable” to Afghanistan as the nation elects a new leader to replace Karzai next April, Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat and Kabul-based political analyst, said in a phone interview. Karzai has led the country since 2001 and is barred from standing again due to term limits.

“The accord will save billions of dollars invested in Afghanistan’s army, mining projects and the 12-year achievements the U.S. has made in various sectors,” Saeedi said. “The U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan so simply,” he predicted, in part because it wants “to keep track of intelligence information in the region.”