Afghan Elders Will Decide Future Of U.S. Troops After 2014

Some 3,000 Afghan elders will assemble on Thursday in Kabul to consider a new security agreement with the U.S. The document will spell out the rules for American forces in Afghanistan troops after their combat mission ends in December 2014. U.S. officials say between 6,000 and 9,000 US troops would remain to train Afghan security forces and conduct counter-terror missions against al-Qaeda and other anti-government forces. That counter-terror mission remains a sticking point, though most other issues — like potential criminal liability of Americans in Afghanistan — have been resolved.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It looks more likely that thousands of American troops will serve in Afghanistan beyond the end of next year. That's because today the U.S. and Afghanistan moved closer to finalizing a security agreement. The deal would determine what missions any remaining U.S. troops would be allowed to conduct after the main combat operation ends.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now to talk about the security pact. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: Negotiators have been working on this deal for a year, basically a framework for what U.S. troops will be able to do in Afghanistan. Have the last issues actually been resolved?

BOWMAN: Well, Robert, Afghan officials say, yes, everything has been worked out. But U.S. officials say it's too early to say that. The most recent problem involved whether U.S. forces would be able to go into Afghan homes, basically as part of their counter-terrorism mission. Afghans said no. The U.S. insisted they need to be able to do that in rare circumstances.

So let's say if U.S. troops are in danger, under fire, or if they find a senior al-Qaida leader - a member of the Haqqani network, one of the Taliban groups - and they have to move quickly. That was the most recent impasse.

SIEGEL: And the U.S. said troops must be able to do that. The Afghans said they can't. How did they resolve that one?

BOWMAN: Well, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said today they will allow U.S. troops to go inside Afghan homes but only under extraordinary circumstances, like the ones I just mentioned. And as part of the deal, President Karzai's spokesman said President Obama would write a letter acknowledging past mistakes by U.S. forces.

Now, White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked about this today. He wouldn't comment but he did talk about past examples where the U.S. combat missions ended up killing civilians and said U.S. troops would take every precaution to prevent this.

Now, of course, all this is tentative. But this deal has to be approved by a meeting of tribal elders called the Loya Jirga. They started meeting on Thursday. There are 3,000 tribal elders that will be meeting. They'll go over the agreement and they need to reach a consensus. And it's conceivable, Robert, that they could reject parts of this tentative deal. And that letter from President Obama, according to the Afghans, would be presented to this Loya Jirga.

SIEGEL: Now, there had been another issue the sides couldn't agree on, just a typical problem in status of forces agreements between U.S. forces in countries where they're based - whether Afghanistan or the U.S. would have jurisdiction, if a member of the American military committed a crime in Afghanistan. How did they resolve that or did they resolve that?

BOWMAN: Well, they did resolve it. The U.S. insisted that it reserve the right to prosecute any service members. And that was kind of a potential deal-breaker for the U.S. They would never turn over a soldier for prosecution in Afghan courts. And you might remember it was this very issue that scuttled a similar security deal with Iraq, several years ago.

SIEGEL: So if a deal is finalized, how many U.S. troops are likely to be in Afghanistan after 2014?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm hearing between 6,000, 9,000 U.S. troops and most likely the lower end of the spectrum. And they would have two missions. A training mission, they'd be working with Afghans on everything from logistics to medevacs, building up the country's air force, that kind of thing. And they would also go in that counter-terror mission, as well. You would have American Special Operations Forces paired with Afghans, going after the remnants of al-Qaida and senior Taliban leaders.

SIEGEL: Tom, as you mentioned, on the Afghanistan side, this agreement would have to be approved by the Loya Jirga - by the council of tribal elders. Is this a treaty? Does it have to be approved by the U.S. Senate, as well...

BOWMAN: No, it would not be a treaty. It would be an agreement, so it would not have to be approved by the Senate.

SIEGEL: Two-thirds of...

BOWMAN: Right, exactly. And if things move, you know, forward as they seem to be, you could have numbers on troop - U.S. troop - the number of U.S. troops maybe by January, we think.

SIEGEL: Aha.

BOWMAN: President Obama would announce that.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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