Approval seen for U.S.-Afghan security plan by year's end

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WASHINGTON -- The United States and Afghanistan have circulated a completed draft of a bilateral security agreement that will indefinitely extend the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond next year's combat troop withdrawal, and they expect to sign the document by the end of the year, according to congressional and Obama administration officials.

The agreement resolves the issue of "immunity" for U.S. troops from Afghan prosecution -- a sticking point in negotiations -- by stipulating that the United States will have exclusive legal jurisdiction over American military personnel and Defense Department civilians working with them. At the same time, it makes clear that no one is exempt from prosecution for wrongdoing, according to a senior administration official.

"That has been one of the hardest issues -- how to translate the concept" of legal jurisdiction into Pashto or Dari, the two Afghan languages, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the negotiations for attribution.

Just hours after President Hamid Karzai announced completion of the agreement Saturday, a powerful car bomb detonated in Kabul just a few hundred yards from the site where Afghan tribal elders and civil leaders will gather to vote on it. The explosion, the first major incident in the capital in several months, killed at least six people, according to officials.

Mr. Karzai declined to offer specifics about the agreement, but officials said the roughly two-dozen-page accord falls well short of his demand that the United States commit to protecting Afghan territory against any outside attack, a condition that would have required a Senate-ratified treaty. Instead, it expresses a strong U.S. interest in Afghanistan's stability and security, and promises consultation and consideration of unspecified assistance.

In a preamble, the document repeats language from a broader strategic partnership agreement signed last year in which the United States pledged not to use Afghan territory or facilities "as a launching point for attacks against other countries." But that language is not expected to prohibit U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in neighboring Pakistan.

The administration began briefing lawmakers on the accord late last week. Beginning Thursday, its terms will be considered by up to 3,000 Afghan tribal elders and civil leaders as part of a gathering known as a loya jirga. Although some objections are likely, U.S. officials are confident that any changes will be minor, and Mr. Karzai has said he will abide by the loya jirga's decision.

The document does not include troop numbers for a residual U.S. presence. President Barack Obama is likely to announce a plan for troop levels -- to be determined unilaterally by the United States -- early in 2014, according to senior administration officials.

Most estimates have indicated that the administration will retain 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan after the end of combat operations to advise and train local forces and conduct some counterterrorism missions.

Completion of the draft follows months of contentious debate and threats on both sides to walk away from a deal. The administration threatened as recently as last month to adopt a "zero option" and withdraw all U.S. troops. Secretary of State John Kerry was sent to Kabul to convince Mr. Karzai that the White House was ready to abandon plans for a long-term, costly security partnership.

Failure to agree would have put at risk a significant portion of the $4 billion NATO has agreed to spend annually in Afghanistan after 2014; NATO countries and others that also plan to leave training contingents have said they would leave without a U.S. deal. Once the U.S.-Afghan document is signed, NATO will begin negotiating its own long-term arrangement.

The administration was eager to avoid a repeat of Iraq, where negotiations over a long-term U.S. military presence broke down and ultimately failed weeks before the final combat troop withdrawal at the end of 2011.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees were shown the draft and briefed Thursday by State and Defense department officials, congressional aides said. A spokesman for Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said concerns about legal jurisdiction were allayed.

The briefing was the first time any U.S. lawmakers heard details of the plan, and it came after some bipartisan grumbling that the administration had not been forthcoming. Although the document does not require congressional approval, the administration has pledged to consult lawmakers and said it would provide information relevant to decisions about future funding and troop deployments.


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