Kerry and Karzai Reach Tentative Deal, but Uncertainty Looms

The U.S. Secretary of State held talks this weekend in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the terms of the continued U.S. presence in the country after 2014

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Jackquelyn Martin / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai after a press conference at the presidential palace during an unannounced stop in Kabul on Oct. 12, 2013

After a grueling day of negotiations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walked into the dark courtyard of the presidential palace in Kabul on Saturday night and told a weary press corps that they had finally reached a deal. Almost.

Kerry and Karzai had sat through three rounds of talks in Kabul over Friday and Saturday to work through an impasse on a bilateral security agreement (BSA), which lays out a plan for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after tens of thousands of foreign troops leave next year. U.S. and Afghan negotiators managed to iron out several points of contention over the marathon session. The U.S. pledged that, if troops remain, they would not carry out unilateral military operations after 2014, a major concern for Karzai. The parties also agreed on what kinds of internal and external threats Afghanistan faces, and how the U.S. may help Afghanistan defend itself after 2014. “From our vantage … we reached a basic agreement on all of the key issues,” a senior Administration official told reporters in a later briefing.

But the deal still has to move through Afghanistan’s tricky political machinery, and could hit snags along the way. Karzai has summoned a council of elders called the loya jirga to advise the government on the deal. The document also requires the approval of Afghanistan’s National Security Council and the parliament. One wild card in the process is whether the jirga will agree that U.S. troops remaining after 2014, which would be engaged primarily in training and counterterrorism activity, be tried in the U.S. if they commit a crime on Afghan soil. “If the issue of jurisdiction cannot be resolved, then, unfortunately, there cannot be a bilateral security agreement,” Kerry said during the press briefing. “We hope that that will be resolved. And it’s up to the Afghan people, as it should be.”

Whether or not the jirga goes along with that and other terms may depend largely on whether Karzai himself is fully on board. “Typically, the leadership of Afghanistan has always had influence on the jirgas,” says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. If Karzai supports the deal, as he appeared to this weekend, says Rahmani, it is reasonable to assume that the jirga will also give it a thumbs-up. A darker, albeit less likely scenario would be if Karzai did not want to go along with it, and was using the council as a way to absolve himself of responsibility for derailing talks. “He wants to think of his future in the history of Afghanistan,” says Rahmani. By summoning a jirga, “he wants to share the burden of whatever the consequences [of the security deal] are — good or bad.”

The BSA talks have been under way for nearly a year, and they have been rocky. Until this weekend, Karzai had appeared ambivalent about meeting the Oct. 31 deadline for a resolution that the U.S. had sought. Earlier, in June, Karzai had suspended the talks after the Taliban established an office in Qatar, and reports surfaced that the U.S. was planning to meet with the militant group. (U.S. officials said reports of such a meeting were inaccurate.)

The U.S. has said it wants an agreement soon so it can begin planning the onerous task of withdrawing 87,000 NATO troops by the end of 2014. But part of the rush may also be a result of the fact that officials want to finalize things with Karzai himself, who is constitutionally required to step down after national elections on April 5. Though he has proved a mercurial ally since he took office in 2001, Karzai is, at least, a known entity. Many of the candidates who have put their names forward to take his place next year offer much less certainty, with CV flaws ranging from a lack of any discernible experience to standing accused of war crimes.

One scenario that looms is that if no agreement is reached, no U.S. troops will remain in the country after 2014. While that notion would be embraced by anti-American factions within Afghanistan, it has also been destabilizing, says Rahmani. “The scenario of a zero-sum option — a post-2014 without U.S. troops — has been destructive,” he says, hurting investment and the economy. Though nothing may be set in stone between the governments yet, the renewed prospect that an agreement is on the way “gives hope that this country will survive.”