THE BLOG
10/14/2013 10:54 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2013

No Immunity for US Troops: Why Hamid Karzai Punted to Loya Jirga

As U.S, Secretary of State John Kerry heralds the near-complete negotiations over a Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, one thing is certain: immunity for U.S. troops post-2014 isn't going to happen. It's a political non-starter.

No Afghan presidential candidate, queuing for the April 2014 elections, can support it, nor do the Afghan people want immunity for foreign troops. They've seen too much indiscriminate night raiding and air striking of innocent civilians, burning of Qurans, and peeing on dead Afghan bodies. This is a serious sovereignty decision and one that President Karzai cannot make on his own.

President Karzai punted the immunity issues to the Loya Jirga for three clearly political reasons.

First, he's mindful of being relevant after the April 2014 elections, so by involving all stakeholders on this bilateral security agreement (from the Jirga to the parliament) he's showing that's keen to preemptively curry favor, a move which sets up his political security in 2014 and beyond.

Second, Karzai doesn't want to be the fall guy if things sour militarily post-U.S.-withdrawal so he's smartly sharing the security burden now with the Loya Jirga and the parliament.

Third, and most importantly, he knows the Jirga will say no to an immunity deal for U.S. troops.

President Karzai's punt to the Jirga was akin to President Obama's punt to Congress on military action in Syria. They were both smart face-saving maneuvers that buy time, share the decision-making burden, and save face.

Karzai, furthermore, has little political leverage over the Loya Jirga, especially since the top 2014 presidential contender is not Qayum Karzai, the president's brother, but Abdullah Abdullah. There is no need, then, to maintain allegiance with the current president. And while the government and the various jirgas are in general agreement over the key issues at stake -- sovereignty, civilian casualties, definition of invasion by neighboring states, and legal accountability/oversight over foreign troops -- this move was strictly political, not substantial.

Keep in mind that most Afghans distrust the U.S. government in their capacity to hold American troops accountable, especially in the remote rural areas where the Jirgas are especially relied upon for dispute resolution. While the high profile cases may get accountability, most go without reprimand or justice, including the countless stories of abuse accompanying night raids, which Karzai has fought long and hard to ban.

From Iraq to the Philippines, and now to Afghanistan, local populations are overwhelmingly against immunity for U.S. troops. These populations, understandably, want accountability within their court of law, as Americans would assuredly want if there were another country's troops stationed here in the US.

Going forward, unless the U.S. wants to leave another country on very bitter terms -- as it did with Iraq leaving a sour and vitriolic taste in the mouths of most Iraqis -- it would be wise to learn a lesson here and respect Afghan sovereignty and judicial jurisprudence. That is the only way forward if the White House wants to leave this country better off than it found it. But at this rate, it'll be worse off, not better.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at the George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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