America and Afghanistan have agreed on a security pact that could clear the way for thousands of US troops to train and assist Afghan forces after the Nato combat mission ends in 2014.
But the agreement is far from complete as the document now goes to the Loya Jirga, a 3,000-member council of elders that has the right to revise or reject any clause of the draft agreement. Whatever they agree upon then goes to the Afghan parliament, which could make still more changes before the deal is approved.
On the US side, only the Obama administration needs to approve the agreement, but it could reject changes made by Afghan officials. If so, that leaves open the option for the US to pull all troops out of Afghanistan, as in Iraq, when the countries could not agree on terms of a security arrangement.
Sectarian violence has plagued Iraq since, and some fear Afghanistan could head down that path without a continued US presence if Afghan forces cannot defend the country themselves.
US secretary of state John Kerry said the language of the Afghan deal, agreed after about a year of tense on-again, off-again negotiations, would be reflected in the draft proposal presented to the Loya Jirga in Kabul today.
“There were some people who may have questioned or doubted whether that was going to happen. Well, it’s happening tomorrow, and it’s happening tomorrow with agreed-upon language between us,” Mr Kerry said during a news conference at the US State Department with Australian officials and defence secretary Chuck Hagel last night.
“We have agreed on the language that would be submitted to the Loya Jirga, but they have to pass it.”
The agreement would give the US a legal basis for having forces in Afghanistan after 2014 and also allow it to use bases across the country.
US officials have not yet disclosed the number of troops they want to keep in Afghanistan after 2014. They have said the US and Nato could keep between 8,000 and 12,000 troops there. Of those, the US is expected to provide no more than 8,000.
Mr Kerry said that whatever the number, the role of the US military would be “limited”.
“It is entirely train, equip and assist. There is no combat role for United States forces, and the bilateral security agreement is a way to try to clarify for Afghans and for United States military forces exactly what the rules are with respect to that ongoing relationship,” he said.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s office posted a copy of the draft proposal on its website. According to the draft, the agreement, as expected, gives the US legal jurisdiction over troops and Defence Department civilians, while contractors would be subject to the Afghan judicial process.
Deep divisions in Afghanistan over legal immunity for American soldiers and contractors, as well as night raids, had threatened to scuttle diplomatic efforts.
The pact also provides for US counter-terrorism operations co-ordinated with the Afghans, with the goal that the Afghan forces should lead. It also notes that US troops will not conduct combat operations unless they are “mutually agreed” on.
On the sensitive issue of US troops going into Afghan homes, the agreement says US forces should not “target Afghan civilians, including in their homes, consistent with Afghan law and the United States forces’ rules of engagement”. It also says US counter-terrorism operations should be conducted with “full regard for the safety and security of the Afghan people, including in their homes”.
An additional line, agreed by both sides, says “US forces can only enter Afghan homes in extraordinary circumstances when the life or limb of Americans is at stake”, according to a US official, who said this language was the only line missing from the draft posted on the website.
Mr Kerry and Mr Karzai spoke by phone yesterday for the second time in two days. On Tuesday, Mr Karzai invited Mr Kerry to attend the Loya Jirga.
Mr Kerry has no plans to attend, but offered the idea of providing reassurances about the US-Afghan security relationship in addressing past issues such as civilians casualties, which have been discussed many times. The US State Department said that those assurances might be offered in the form of a letter or another format, but nothing had been decided.
The deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of US-led Nato forces have been a sensitive issue in the US-Afghanistan relationship, although more Afghan civilians die as a result of insurgent attacks.
The Afghan president is keenly aware that previous leaders of his country have been punished if seen as selling out to foreign interests and wants to make sure any US-Afghan agreement is not viewed in that context.
Mr Karzai, who cannot run for a third term, is due to step down at the end of next year – the same time nearly all international troops are to have left the country. If the elders approve the pact, it will give him the political cover he needs to sign it.