KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States and Afghanistan agreed Saturday on a draft deal that would keep some U.S. forces in Afghanistan past next year, but only if Afghan political and tribal leaders agree to a key U.S. demand that U.S. troops not be subject to Afghan law, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the framework security agreement meets his demands regarding counterterrorism operations on Afghan soil and respects Afghan sovereignty. The U.S. demand to retain legal jurisdiction over all remaining U.S. forces will be put before a Loya Jirga, Karzai said. He plans to convene the Afghan tribal consultation body next month
That body’s opinion on whether to approve or disapprove an American demand that its forces be remanded to U.S. military courts would then be sent to the Afghan Parliament.
“We have reached an agreement on the respect of national sovereignty, preventing civilian casualties, a definition for aggression and also the prevention of unilateral acts by foreign forces. … but the issue of jurisdiction for foreign forces is above the authority of the Afghan government, and that is up to the Afghan people and the Loya Jirga,” Karzai said.
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Kerry responded that any decision made by the Loya Jirga and parliament would be respected, but if the jurisdiction issue was not resolved there would be no agreement.
Immunity is a deal-breaking issue for the United States. The Iraqi government’s refusal to grant the same immunity was what prompted U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq two years ago.
Karzai’s insistence on greater Afghan control over counterterrorism operations — one of the main sticking points leading up to Saturday’s agreement — had been underscored in recent days by a successful U.S. mission this month to detain a senior Pakistani Taliban leader whose group claimed responsibility for the 2010 bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square.
Latif Mehsud, a senior deputy to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, was captured Oct. 5 as he traveled in Afghanistan’s Logar province, the State Department confirmed Friday. The operation angered Afghan intelligence and security officials, who said Mehsud had been in their custody when he was forcibly removed by U.S. troops, and it prompted Kerry to travel to Kabul to reassure and lobby Karzai in person.
Kerry said Saturday that he and Karzai had been able to talk through their differences on the issue. Karzai repeated that the issue was important to Afghans and that the operation went “against Afghanistan’s laws and independence.”
The jurisdiction issue came to the fore after a U.S. soldier, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, killed 16 people in two villages in southern Afghanistan last year. He was convicted in August by a military court and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release.
Kerry explained that the issue should not be equated with immunity, as it is perceived by many Afghans. He said the United States would prosecute any wrongdoing and that similar agreements existed with many countries, such as Japan and South Korea.
Kerry headed for Europe and the United States late Saturday.
Discussions had repeatedly stalled in recent weeks over Karzai’s demand for American guarantees against future foreign intervention from countries such as Pakistan, and U.S. demands for any post-2014 residual force to be able to conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
There are an estimated 87,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including about 52,000 Americans. That number will be halved by February, and all foreign combat troops will be gone by the end of next year.
The U.S. wants to keep as many as 10,000 troops in the country to go after the remnants of al-Qaida, but if no agreement is signed, all U.S. troops would have to leave by Dec. 31, 2014. President Obama said in an interview that he would be comfortable with a full pullout of U.S. troops.
A complete U.S. withdrawal could prove disastrous for Afghanistan, leading to a steep drop in the billions of dollars in annual aid, which pays roughly 80 percent of Afghanistan’s bills and props up its biggest businesses.