05/03/2012 02:07 pm ET Updated May 04, 2012

Afghanistan Strategic Partnership May Hinge On Immunity For US Troops

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In his first public remarks since the finalization of a partnership agreement that would put U.S. troops in a supporting role by the end of 2014, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Thursday that tough negotiations over America's long-term presence in the country were far from over.

Talks over the formulation of a bilateral security agreement, which would have to take up the many specific sticking points that this week's partnership agreement avoids, "will be an even more difficult negotiation," Karzai said at a press conference in Kabul.

"Our hope from the U.S. is that they understand the sensitivities that our country has," Karzai said. "We'll consider their interests, but we hope that they don't demand what is not possible."

At the top of the list of those sensitivities is the issue of immunity for U.S. troops who commit wrongdoings, said Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, in a conversation with The Huffington Post later in the day.

"In the next round of talks we will have to deal very seriously with this issue," Faizi said.

The strategic partnership agreement signed this week does not include provisions for a handful of important components of the post-2014 American military presence, including how much funding the U.S. would give Afghanistan, and the exact number of troops that would stay. Failing to come to terms on those points, as well as on legal details like immunity, could jeopardize the entire pact, experts say.

Indeed, immunity turned out to be the main sticking point last year, when the U.S. and Iraq failed to come to a new status of forces agreement, leading to the full withdrawal of all American troops despite both countries' stated desire to see some American military presence remain.

American officials in Kabul have generally sought to downplay concerns that a similar situation could happen here, with U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker telling reporters on Wednesday that it was not worth fretting over the issue just yet.

"Without wanting to sound wildly optimistic, we do have a year to work our way through these issue," Crocker said. "An extreme long-term prediction for me would be a week from Friday."

But the public uproar over a number of recent incidents, including the burning of Qurans at an American military base and the massacre of dozens of villagers in the remote district of Panjwai, for which an American soldier has been charged, has added to the sense that a deal on immunity may prove politically difficult for Karzai.

"The recent incidents here -- the Quran burning, Panjwai -- those have certainly had their impact on the issue of immunity," Faizi said. "If there's a case of a soldier killing civilians, that causes a big problem for us, and it will cause a problem for the issue of immunity."

In private discussions, Faizi said, Karzai has made it clear that while he might be willing to accept legal immunities for troops conducting approved operations, he would not tolerate a repeat of how the U.S. handled the accused shooter in Panjwai, who was flown out of the country before the investigations had finished, infuriating Karzai.

"When it's a legal case, the president can go to the people and say that it was accidental, in the course of legal operations," Faizi said. "But when it's an intentional killing like the case of Panjwai, the president won't be able to calm the people down. And this makes it very difficult for us."



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