WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry announced Wednesday that the United States and Afghanistan had finalized the wording of a bilateral security agreement that would allow for a lasting U.S. troop presence through 2024 and set the stage for billions of dollars of international assistance to keep flowing to the Kabul government.
The deal, which now will be presented for approval by an Afghan grand council of elders starting today, came after days of brinkmanship by Afghan officials and two direct calls from Mr. Kerry to President Hamid Karzai, including one Wednesday before the announcement.
Just the day before, a senior Karzai aide had said the Afghan leader would not approve an agreement unless President Barack Obama sent a letter acknowledging U.S. military mistakes during the 12-year war. But Mr. Kerry emphatically insisted Wednesday that a deal was reached with no U.S. apology forthcoming.
"President Karzai didn't ask for an apology. There was no discussion of an apology," Mr. Kerry said. "I mean, it's just not even on the table."
After a 12-year war that stands as the longest in U.S. history, the security accord defines a training and counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan lasting at least another 10 years and involving an estimated 8,000-12,000 troops, mostly American.
Despite criticism from Afghan officials during its negotiation, the pact contains concessions that the Obama administration could not win from Iraq during a similar process in 2011, leading to the final withdrawal of U.S. troops there.
Now, the United States has at least an initial agreement from Afghan officials that U.S. soldiers will not face Afghan prosecution in the course of their duties. And U.S. Special Operations forces will retain leeway to conduct antiterrorism raids on private Afghan homes -- a central demand that Afghan officials had resisted and described as the last sticking point in negotiations.
In the end, both the Obama administration and the Karzai government had more reason to agree than disagree, according to officials on both sides. U.S. officials do not want to see Afghanistan again become a haven for terrorists after it spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives in the war. And the Afghan leadership knows that more than $4 billion in annual international security assistance simply would not flow absent an U.S. military presence to account for it.
Still, domestic political risks remain for both presidents today, as well. Some in Afghanistan already criticize Mr. Karzai for being the political agent of a long-term foreign military presence. And Mr. Obama must explain to a nation weary of war why he is pressing for a continued military deployment, albeit a smaller one than advocated by U.S. military commanders.
Further, there is an immediate risk to the deal itself: the bilateral security agreement now must be approved by an Afghan council, known as a loya jirga. About 3,000 elders and leadership figures, all vetted by the Karzai government, will meet in Kabul for the next three days to weigh the agreement's language, and it is sure to face at least some criticism.
Draft language of the security agreement that was posted on the Afghan Foreign Ministry website Wednesday night differed substantially from earlier working documents made available to journalists, seeming to ease off several Afghan demands that officials had publicly described as untouchable. Still, it was unclear whether the posted draft reflected the wording that will be handed out to loya jirga delegates this morning.
The agreement itself would not establish a final troop number after the official NATO combat mission ends in December 2014. That is still to come from the Obama administration, and is expected to be a force of between 8,000 and 12,000 personnel to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. About two-thirds of that force would be American, and the rest from NATO and other allies.
There would be no direct combat role for most of those troops, who would be assigned to major headquarters and not out in the field with Afghan fighting units. There would be a much smaller counterterrorism force envisioned by U.S. and NATO planners.
The current draft accord accedes to the central U.S. demand that ended up scuttling the Iraq negotiations: U.S. military personnel would be subject only to U.S. military law, not Afghan laws, and Afghanistan pledges not to turn them over to any international tribunals. The proposed treaty does, however, grant Afghans legal jurisdiction over contractors.