Sovereignty Issues Cloud Tentative Agreement on U.S. Role in Afghanistan After 2014

By Patrick Goodenough | October 14, 2013 | 4:26 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry paces while on a phone call during a break in extended talks on Saturday, October 12, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

( – The U.S. and Afghan governments tentatively agreed in marathon weekend talks on the main elements of a security arrangement that would govern the post-2014 presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but President Hamid Karzai’s anger over the capture of a Pakistani terrorist on Afghan soil underlined the deep differences between the two sides.

The U.S. envisages training and counterterrorism force in Afghanistan after the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission shuts down at the end of 2014. The size of that force has not been specified.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Karzai negotiated for some 11 hours in total before announcing to reporters in Kabul on Saturday night that a bilateral security agreement was now almost a done deal – almost, because the terms still have to be approved by both a traditional “loya jirga” gathering of tribal elders and the Afghan parliament.

Several sticking points have held up agreement on the bilateral security agreement, which has been under discussion on-and-off for almost a year, topped by the question of legal jurisdiction in cases of crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Although the Afghan side portrayed the issue as one of “immunity,” Kerry rejected that characterization, insisting justice would be done in such cases – but in U.S. military courts, not Afghan ones.

Kerry also made it clear that the issue was non-negotiable for Washington. The U.S. would respect any decision taken by the loya jirga and parliament, he said, but if the jurisdiction question was not settled, there could be no agreement.

Wherever U.S. forces are deployed around the world, including in Japan and South Korea, they operate under the same arrangement, Kerry explained.

“We don’t subject United States citizens to that kind of uncertainty with respect to their rights and lives,” he said. “It is no comment on any other country. It’s nothing negative. It’s an historical tradition and something that exists everywhere in the world.”

In 2011 the U.S. and Iraqi governments held talks about retaining a number of U.S. troops in that country beyond the Dec. 31, 2011 withdrawal deadline laid down in a 2008 agreement. But in the end negotiations broke down over the same issue – legal jurisdiction – and plans for an ongoing training and counterterrorism force there were scrapped. Sectarian violence in Iraq has escalated dramatically this year, with more than 5,000 deaths reported since April.

Other issues of contention in the bilateral security agreement talks included Karzai’s demands that foreign forces in the country after 2014 not operate independently – or as he put in on Saturday night, “the United States will no longer conduct operations by themselves.”

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan commander Latif Mehsud has been arrested by U.S. troops in Afghanistan (AP Photo/Ishtiaq Mahsud)

On Friday, the State Department confirmed that U.S. forces in Afghanistan had taken into custody a top leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist group, Latif Mehsud.

Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she could share no details about the location or time of his capture, but Afghan officials said he had been seized in eastern Afghanistan and taken to the U.S. military base at Bagram, near Kabul.

During his joint media appearance with Kerry, Karzai confirmed he had raised concerns about Mehsud’s capture “in earnest” with the Americans – “as we have on other previous occasions of such arrests in which the Afghan laws were disregarded, which we do consider a violation of Afghan sovereignty.”

In his discussions with Kerry on the bilateral security agreement, he said, he had focused on ensuring “that such violations are not repeated,” adding that “this is an issue of extreme importance to the Afghan people.”

Kerry defended the action without going into details, calling it “a normal counterterrorism procedure, according to the standards that we have been operating by for a long period of time.”

Mehsud’s group, which is closely affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, has carried out scores of terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past six years, resulting in thousands of deaths. Last month it claimed responsibility for the deadliest attack ever targeting Pakistan’s Christian minority, a suicide bombing at a church in Peshawar that killed at least 80 people. Pakistan’s new prime minister wants to negotiate a peace deal with the TTP.

The U.S. has even more direct reasons for acting against the group, which it describes as a “force multiplier” for al-Qaeda.

The TTP carried out a suicide bombing at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar in April 2010, killing six Pakistanis, and the following month tried to detonate a bomb in New York City’s Times Square.

TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud told the BBC in an interview last week the group would continue to target “America and its friends.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow