As the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan draws near, Secretary of State John Kerry is brokering the next stage of U.S. involvement in the area.
On Sunday, Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai came close to sealing a deal to maintain 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after the official December 31st, 2014 withdrawal date.
Troops deployed after 2014 would be involved in training, advising and assisting the Aghan security forces, in addition to carrying out counterterrorism operations, Kerry said.
One potential deal breaker stands in the way of the bilateral security agreement: the U.S. has asked for legal jurisdiction over crimes committed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and Karzai said that he did not have the authority to provide immunity to the U.S.
Karzai handed the decision on legal protection to Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga, a council of elders, which will convene next month to review the agreement. The Loya Jirga’s decision will then be reviewed by the Afghan parliament.
The issue of jurisdiction has been a perpetual sticking point for the U.S. in negotiating status of forces agreements with foreign governments.
In Iraq, a similar deal to maintain troops after the end of major combat operations pivoted on legal protections for U.S. troops and eventually fell through, resulting in the complete withdrawal of all U.S. military forces in 2011.
The progress in the agreement comes after months of uncertainty and stalling of talks between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Most recently, outgoing president Karzai’s criticism of NATO efforts in Afghanistan appeared to further setback negotiations.
Speaking about the security situation in the country, Karzai stated in a BBC interview last week that “on the security front, the entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering and a lot of loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure.”
Even as Kerry arrived in Kabul on Friday, diplomats projected that he only had a 50/50 chance of striking a deal with Karzai who has made clear that he is willing to see the exit of NATO forces. “The agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes if it doesn’t suit us and it doesn’t suit them then naturally we will go separate ways, ” Karzai told a BBC reporter.
However, in light of the progress made in the nearly 24 hours of negotiations this Sunday, Kerry is hopeful that Afghan authorities will accept the bilateral agreement.
“We have high confidence that the people of Afghanistan will see the benefits of this agreement,” Kerry said at a press conference.
Although President Obama recently said that he would be comfortable with a complete withdrawal, the “zero option” would probably come with major consequences for both sides.
For America, it would mean the loss of a critical staging area, located between Pakistan and Iran, for conducting intelligence and counterterrorism operations.
A complete American withdrawal fwould also likely put Afghanistan in dire economic straits, as it would pull billions of dollars in promised annual aid to the country, which currently accounts for 80 percent of Afghanistan’s expenditures, and also provides supports its major businesses.
Meanwhile, the Taliban appears to be growing more violent, with Afghan troop deaths hitting record highs in recent weeks.
Following President Obama’s surge strategy, U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan peaked in 2011 at around 101,000, of a total of 140,000 NATO troops. Since then, Obama’s withdrawal plan has brought 33,000 troops back to the U.S., leaving around 68,000 troops in the country as of last June. Around half, or 34,000 of these remaining troops are projected to return by early 2014.
Obama has set the deadline for the bilateral security agreement talks to conclude on October 31, which may be a problem since the Loya Jirga that Karazai has said must be consulted before a decision is reached doesn’t convene until November.