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On eve of Afghan council, uncertainty over future of military mission

A city worker untangles an Afghan flag in Kabul on a road leading the building hosting the Loya Jirga, a council of elders and local leaders from around the country, which begins Wednesday. The council will consider a proposed U.S.-Afghan security accord that must be approved for the U.S. to keep troops in the country beyond 2014. Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes

HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By HEATH DRUZIN AND CHRIS CARROLL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2013

KABUL — Despite the backroom dealings and negotiations of the past few weeks, nothing is certain about the fate of a security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that will have major implications for the future of a country America invaded 12 years ago.

A disparate group of local leaders, politicians, lawyers, businessmen and others gathers Thursday to pass judgment on the agreement, without which all international troops will almost certainly leave the country at the end of 2014.

The 2,500 leaders from around Afghanistan are participating in a Loya Jirga, or meeting of elders, which will rule on, among other issues, whether the U.S. can retain sole legal jurisdiction over its troops in Afghanistan. Without that stipulation, the U.S. will not keep a military presence in the country. A similar dispute about immunity for U.S. troops between Washington and Baghdad two years ago derailed plans to keep a residual force in Iraq. No other NATO nations are likely to stay in Afghanistan either, as the alliance sees the U.S. agreement as a precondition for its own status of forces agreement with Afghanistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai could have approved the security agreement outright but instead convened the jirga. The body’s decisions are nonbinding and must be ratified by the Afghan parliament, but its deliberations carry weight in Afghan society.

Some analysts see the convening of the Loya Jirga as cover for Karzai to make an unpopular decision — though whether that decision will be to keep international troops or jettison them is something experts disagree on.

“If it’s like the last one, (this jirga) will be theater, it will be drama,” said Kate Clark, an analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.

The main issue the jirga will be debating is legal jurisdiction. Currently, if American troops are accused of crimes in Afghanistan, the U.S. has a right to try them in American courts, rather than put them through the Afghan legal system. This has been the main sticking point in negotiations between Washington and Kabul over an agreement to keep a small training force in Afghanistan past the end of 2014, the deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave Afghanistan.

It’s an issue that’s been controversial in Afghanistan, even sparking an anti-Loya Jirga conference last week that drew an estimated 3,000 people and included chants of “Death to America” and calls for an outright rejection of further foreign troop presence in Afghanistan.

“The fundamental aim of our association is that we are against American military bases in Afghanistan after 2014 because it is not fruitful for Afghanistan,” Mohammad Hassan Hakiyar, who organized the event said. “It would cause continued war in the country, cause more political and cultural problems.”

Those attending the jirga seem split on the jurisdiction issue, with some complaining that certain practices legal in America are against the law in Afghanistan and others noting the U.S. is asking for the same terms it has with other countries where U.S. troops are stationed.

“In those countries where those troops are based, legal immunity is not a big issue, because if any soldier commits any crime, the American government prosecutes him or her under their own law,” said Ghulam Sakhi Baghlani, governor of Kunduz province and a member of the jirga.

Participants in the jirga say it is not a fait accompli that the council will agree to the U.S. jurisdiction demand.

“I don’t think that a decision is already made and that the jirga is only symbolic, because thousands of people are coming from across the country and spending their time here in the capital — it’s a real discussion,” said Mohammad Omar Nangyalai, a jirga participant and member of parliament representing Kandahar province.

The decision to convene the jirga sprang out of meetings between Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in October. The two came to broad agreement on a security pact that would allow a small contingent of U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan past 2014 to assist with training as well as intelligence and air support. But Karzai insisted that the Loya Jirga must have the final say.

Karzai likely convened the Loya Jirga in hopes of achieving his goals without being seen as dictating the path Afghanistan should take, said Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

Karzai wants a limited American presence “on his terms,” Majidyar said. “But he did not want to leave a legacy in which, in the future, people say he paved the way for the long-term presence of American troops.”

As the wrangling continues, both sides appear overconfident, Majidyar said: Afghan officials seem to assume that the United States is desperate to retain a toehold in Afghanistan, while American negotiators seem too sure of the persuasive power of foreign aid.

“I think it’s somewhat possible the overconfidence of both sides could lead to miscalculations — and no BSA (bilateral security agreement) being signed,” Majidyar said.

Others have a hard time seeing Karzai passing on a deal to keep international troops in the country, which many see as key to bolstering a fledgling Afghan military that still lacks essential technology and intelligence capabilities, not to mention an effective air force.

Although surprises are always possible in Afghan politics, former Afghan ambassador to France Omar Samad said he thought the agreement was likely to receive the assembly’s approval. Knowledgeable insiders increasingly think the impasse over immunity for U.S. troops is being worked out, said Samad, who’s now a senior fellow for the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

That doesn’t mean everything is going smoothly, he said.

“What is interesting is that over the last couple of months new sticking points are arising — once we think one is resolved, another emerges,” Samad said.

One of the latest controversies is over the right of American special operations forces to conduct unilateral counterterrorism missions — or as many Afghans see it, “to enter Afghan homes,” Samad said.

Such arguments never had to happen, he said, because the strategic partnership agreement the two countries signed in 2012 — itself approved by a Loya Jirga — fully authorized the bilateral security agreement.

“Ironically, what has made everything more complicated and controversial is President Karzai’s own insistence to go through a Loya Jirga,” he said. “This has politically elevated this issue to a point there is a lot to lose or win.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

druzin.heath@stripes.com / Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

carroll.chris@stripes.com / Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_

A TV reporter sets up a live shot on a road leading the building hosting the Loya Jirga, a council of elders and local leaders from around the country, which begins Wednesday. The council will be considering a proposed U.S.-Afghan security accord that is a pre-condition for the U.S. to keep troops in the country beyond 2014. Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes
HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES

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