Back in Afghanistan, Karzai shifts tone on US troop immunity

Failure to agree on an immunity deal in Iraq ensured that US forces pulled out completely by the end of 2011, further diminishing America's influence there.

Ahmad Jamshid/AP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday. Mr. Karzai says a national meeting of elders should be called to decide whether US troops staying in Afghanistan after 2014 would be immune from prosecution under Afghan law.

A diplomatic dance has commenced between the United States and Afghanistan over a US request for legal immunity that would enable a contingent of American troops to stay on beyond 2014.

Failure to agree on an immunity deal in Iraq ensured that US forces pulled out completely by the end of 2011, further diminishing American influence there despite toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 and fighting a bloody counterinsurgency to backstop the governments that followed. Now, observers are watching to see how Afghanistan will handle the issue, which would determine just how many soldiers stay past a 2014 deadline for withdrawal of combat troops.

"I can tell you with relatively good confidence that they will say 'all right, let's do it,' " President Hamid Karzai told CNN in an interview during a visit last week to the US. "And I'm sure that they will understand."

But freshly back in Kabul after meeting President Obama in Washington, Mr. Karzai today gave off subtle signals that suggest a deal may not be so easy. He said final agreement may depend on the decision of a loya jirga, or national gathering of elders, and shrugged off the impending withdrawal of the NATO-led foreign forces by saying the country afterward will be a "more secure and a better place."

“The US is standing firm by its demand for immunity for its soldiers," Karzai said today. "The Afghan government can’t decide on this. This is up to the Afghan nation to decide. The loya jirga will decide."  

The loya jirga's final decision would come in eight or nine months, though the outcome is not necessarily guaranteed, he added.

Karzai and his government have sent mixed signals in the past about their desire to have a residual force on hand after a primary US troops withdrawal, in turns claiming that American and NATO force actions now help fuel Taliban insurgency, or keep it in check.

Afghan officials have raised concerns about granting immunity to residual US forces in Afghanistan, a prerequisite demanded by Washington to let any forces stay on after the bulk of its 66,000 troops – along with most other NATO forces – withdraw by the end of 2014. 

A legal immunity agreement, which the US has with most other sovereign governments where US troops are based or deployed, would mean that American soldiers would not be subject to local courts, law, or jurisdiction.

A limited number of US troops staying on after 2014 will be necessary for "broader security and stability," Karzai told CNN. 

Standing next to Obama on Friday, Karzai said US troops would be in Afghanistan “in small numbers, very, very small numbers like in Germany, Turkey, or South Korea, like in Japan." 

Obama says US troops will begin to diminish their role in Afghanistan as early as this spring. 

Yet US officials have discussed keeping anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, for training, Special Forces counterinsurgency operations, and supporting Afghan Army and police efforts.

“It will not be possible for us to have any kind of US troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women who are operating there are [not] in some way subject to the jurisdiction of another country,” Obama said.

Karzai said: "The issue of immunity is under discussion [and] it is going to take eight or nine months before we reach agreement."

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