For the Afghan government, which has smarted under a decade of Western military dominance in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents, the key will be balancing the desperate need for continued U.S. support of Afghan security forces with the public and political pressure to ensure equality and sovereignty after U.S. combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
“There is no question we would like to see a continued U.S. military presence to strengthen Afghan institutions and assure the Afghan people that the U.S. will be a friend and ally after 2014. But this must be an agreement between two sovereign nations,” said Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan’s deputy foreign minister. “Some see this as being mostly about immunity and jurisdiction, but we see it in the larger context. This is our future at stake.”
For the U.S. government, which has lost more than 2,000 troops in an increasingly unpopular war, the key will be addressing the Afghans’ demand for sovereignty without conceding the right to protect all American forces stationed here in supporting roles from potentially abusive treatment by Afghan authorities or courts.
“As much as I want to get it right in Afghanistan and believe losing would be a national security disaster for the ages, if the Afghans insist on keeping American soldiers in Afghanistan without legal protections . . . I will not vote for one penny, and this war will come to an end,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing in Washington last month.
Last year, during similar negotiations about the role and status of U.S. troops in postwar Iraq, the Iraqi government refused to grant legal immunity for any troops. Despite months of efforts to reach a compromise, the issue ultimately killed the agreement, resulting in the hasty departure of all remaining American forces.
In Afghanistan, the issue was starkly dramatized in March, when Robert Bales, a U.S. Army staff sergeant, was detained after a late-night shooting rampage that killed 16 villagers. Afghan leaders argued that Bales should face justice in Afghan courts, but U.S. military officials swiftly returned him to the United States for prosecution.
While the international command headed by Gen. John R. Allen here is working on recommendations for President Obama on the rate of withdrawal for American combat troops, the U.S. negotiating position for the follow-on force is being formulated in Washington. Officials there said that options currently under discussion call for 5,000 to 10,000 troops, including training and logistics experts as well as counterterrorism units.