The discussions surrounding US troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all.
On Tuesday, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, General Mattis stated that he believed the proper number of NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 would be 20,000, 13,600 being American. This number is significantly higher than what was discussed at a recent NATO summit, where preliminary estimates were 9,500 US troops and 6000 troops from other NATO nations. The White House has yet to come out with an official number.
These discussions, while important to have for the Administration, Congress, and military leaders to get on the same page, in many ways put the cart before the horse. Before any US troops can be committed to post 2014 Afghanistan, the question of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has to be resolved. While there are many things covered in a SOFA, the most important and most controversial points are those which grant immunity to US troops from criminal prosecution under Afghan law.
President Karzai has said that he will not make the decision but will make the case for a SOFA to the Afghan people and leave the choice to a Loya Jirga, a meeting of elders. However President Karzai is also the same leader who demanded security contractors leave the country and that US and NATO troops leave Afghanistan’s villages. It seems then that Karzai wants, or understands the necessity of, continued US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, but does not want to be the one held responsible for its potential consequences. By leaving the decision to a Loya Jirga, President Karzai can say “this is what you wanted”, deflecting blame from potentially unsavory US action.
While it would be purely speculative to asses whether a SOFA will be approved by Afghan elders, it is worth highlighting that acknowledging that US troops are needed and agreeing that they should have legal immunity is not the same thing. Local leaders may see the utility in a continued US presence for preventing al Qaeda to regain a foothold, however selling legal immunity to their “constituents” is a horse of a different color. Indeed this is the same problem Prime Minister Maliki faced in the failure to build sufficient support for a SOFA in Iraq. Both alleged criminal actions from US service members, such as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, and civilian casualties from NATO operations, most recently the accidental killing of two young boys gathering firewood who were thought to be Taliban, are likely to be sticking points for the approval of a SOFA by Afghans.
A SOFA is far from settled and without this agreement there will be no US presence in Afghanistan after 2014. As President Obama said in January:
“It will not be possible for us to have any kind of US troop presence post-2014 without assurances that our men and women who are operating there are (not) in some way subject to the jurisdiction of another country,”
With this line being drawn and a SOFA still unresolved, the discussions surrounding troop numbers in post 2014 Afghanistan are still valuable, but only to the extent that US policymakers and military leadership are confident that they will be able to keep any troops in the country at all. Without legal immunity under a SOFA, the debate over 20,000 or 13,000 troops is a moot point.
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