KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appear to have come closer to an agreement to keep American troops in Afghanistan past 2014, but at least one obstacle remains: the council of elders that has already shot down a key provision of that agreement.

One of the main sticking points has been a U.S. demand that American troops be shielded from prosecution in Afghanistan (though they would not be immune from prosecution under U.S. law).

After intense talks over the weekend between Karzai and Kerry, the two countries seem closer to an overall security agreement, but both officials said the issue of jurisdiction remains unresolved. Karzai is insisting on approval of the security agreement by the Loya Jirga, whose non-binding decision would then be sent to Afghanistan’s parliament for a vote.

“The decision about this particular up to the Afghan people and especially the Loya Jirga. They will be the one to make the decision on this particular issue,” Karzai said during a joint news conference with Kerry Saturday evening.

But experts disagree on whether Karzai’s proclaimed deference to a Loya Jirga - a grand meeting of leaders from across the country - is merely political cover or an actual threat to approval of a bilateral security agreement that the U.S. insists be signed before making further troop commitments.

Negotiations over the security agreement have dragged on for nearly a year, strained relations between Washington and Kabul and raised the possibility that no international military forces would remain in Afghanistan past the end of 2014. That is a frightening prospect for many in the Afghan government and the nascent Afghan security forces, who are already taking increasing casualties as NATO forces withdraw from the country and Afghans take more responsibility for battling an entrenched insurgency.

“He’s in an unenviable position,” said Kate Clark, an analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, referring to Karzai. “He’s the leader of a nation which is very reliant on foreign aid, both budgetary and military, yet he wants to be seen as a sovereign leader.”

The Loya Jirga was convened in 2011 and endorsed negotiations for the bilateral security agreement, but specifically rejected the provision to protect troops from prosecution in Afghan courts. Without that legal protection, the U.S. will almost certainly pull all of its troops from the country at the end of 2014 and all other NATO nations would be likely to follow.

Kerry was categorical about that Saturday. The U.S. will prosecute any perpetrator of any incident or crime, he said. “If the issue of jurisdiction cannot be resolved, then, unfortunately, there cannot be a bilateral security agreement,” Kerry said, noting that the same standard applies wherever in the world the U.S. has forces. “So we hope that that will be resolved. And it’s up to the Afghan people, as it should be.”

Concern over the issue intensified among many Afghans after U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales massacred 16 civilians in Kandahar province in 2012. He pleaded guilty to the massacre and was sentenced to life in prison by a U.S. military court, but many Afghans were outraged that he was spared a death sentence, and a participant in the 2011 Loya Jirga said he doesn’t see the council budging on the issue.

“We have already disapproved this in the last Loya Jirga,” said Hajji Latif, a tribal leader in Nangarhar province. “It will be the same decision in the next Loya Jirga, because most of the participants will be the same.”

Independent Afghan political analyst Wahid Mujhda said convening the Loya Jirga is simply cover for Karzai, who wants to be able to point to broad support for the controversial decision to bow to U.S. demands.

“If [the Loya Jirga] decide anything in favor of Karzai’s agenda, the government will accept it, but if they decide anything against it, they [government leaders] will say it was consultative and will ignore it,” he said.

But Hamidullah Farooqi, an economics professor who participated in the 2011 Loya Jirga and is now a spokesman for the opposition Rights and Justice Party, said, rather than being close to agreement, Karzai’s move to convene the Loya Jirga shows he’s not ready to approve the security agreement.

“It’s a waste of time and waste of resources,” he said of the Loya Jirga. “The Afghan government has the right to go through the legal process [of approval], which is through the Afghan parliament.”

However some observers are sounding cautious optimism that Karzai may be willing to finally make a deal.

While the bilateral security agreement is not yet a done deal and Karzai’s mention of remaining “technical details” to sort out is ominous, Kabul and Washington do seem much closer to agreement, and if Karzai wants the Loya Jirga to back him, he can make it happen, Clark said.

“I don’t think it’s over until it’s written, signed, sealed, and published, but clearly both sides see something workable.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report / Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now