The United States may be looking to keep 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 timeline for withdrawal, as negotiations began in Kabul Thursday over the continued presence of American forces. A number of thorny issues, including immunity from prosecution for U.S. military personnel, are among the current obstacles to a new agreement over the number and role of U.S. forces after the removal of most foreign combat troops over the next two years.
Though no official word has yet been given on that number, it is believed the United States is hoping to retain a force of 20,000 to train and support Afghan security forces and go after extremist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the administration expected a decision in the next few weeks on the number of troops to remain, but the conditions governing their presence, including the troublesome immunity issue, could stretch negotiations over a new security agreement out to as long a year, the AP said.
The immunity issue is what prevented the extension the United States sought to the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, which called for withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of last year. The Obama administration wanted to keep a residual force in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline negotiated between the two countries during the presidency of George W. Bush. Negotiations reached a stalemate, however, when the Baghdad government insisted on the right to prosecute U.S. personnel for crimes committed in their country.
The issue is a particularly sensitive one in Afghanistan, where U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly killed 16 Afghanis in a shooting rampage in two Afghan villages in March of this year. Bales was whisked out of the country after his arrest by the U.S. military and is awaiting trial in the United States, where he faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. Shortly after the attack, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he wanted U.S. troops out of the country by 2013, a year ahead of the agreed upon deadline for withdrawal. That demand has apparently been dropped, but the Afghan government has said it would not accept a provision in the new bilateral security agreement that would ban prosecution of U.S. troops in Afghan courts.
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Photo of Afghan President Hamid Karzai: AP Images