US Looking for a Better SOFA to Leave Behind In Afghanistan After Iraq Failure

Much to the consternation of those who want all war, all the time, Iraq managed to force the US into a complete pullout of troops at the end of 2011, even though there had been efforts to develop a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would have allowed a number of troops to stay on as trainers. Because Iraq would not grant criminal immunity to those remaining forces, the US finally withdrew completely. There had been great hope within the Obama administration that the agreement could be reached, especially because it suffered no consequences from its craven behavior in announcing the end of combat operations in August of 2010, which it achieved merely by redefining 50,000 combat troops as non-combat troops. There have been analyses both at the time of the negotiation failure by Josh Rogin and in September of this year by the New York Times, but the unifying theme is that when Iraq would not agree to immunity the US decided on the pullout, despite the best efforts by the Obama administration to claim that a complete withdrawal had been their plan all along.

The Obama administration began negotiations today with Afghanistan on a SOFA for the conditions under which US troops may stay behind after the handover of security control to Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Once again, the Obama administration will first play the semantics game, as the 2014 deadline is for the end of combat operations, as was the first deadline in Iraq. The US is seeking to leave behind a significant training force (that is fully capable of combat but defined otherwise, I’m sure) but is once again seeking criminal immunity for the remaining troops.

There are significant complications for the negotiations. First, the training relationship between NATO forces and Afghan forces is much worse than it was in Iraq, as green on blue killings have threatened how the US has gone about its mission in Afghanistan. Further, the issue of legal standing is complicated greatly by the fact that the US insists on trying Robert Bales in the US while Afghanistan wants to try him there.

Reuters describes the beginning of negotiations:

Afghanistan and the United States have started talks that will eventually define how many American troops stay in the country after most NATO combat forces leave at the end of 2014, and the scope of their mission.

The bilateral security negotiations could take months, and are expected to be difficult. The round of talks that began on Thursday will cover the legal basis for U.S. soldiers to work in Afghanistan post-2014.

“This document is intended to provide the legal authority for U.S. armed forces and their civilian component to continue a presence in Afghanistan with the full approval of the government of Afghanistan,” said James B. Warlick, deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will be leading the U.S. delegation.

And, of course, immunity is front and center as the primary issue:

The thorniest issue in future talks will be whether U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are given immunity from prosecution under Afghan law.

This is a movie that we have seen before. It is nearly impossible to see how its ending will differ much from Iraq, although I suspect that the combination of the war-weariness of the public and the ongoing risk of trainers being killed might prompt the US to agree that the end of combat operations this time might actually coincide with a complete withdrawal rather than a redefinition of troops. If that decision can be reached quickly (and a hard line from Afghanistan on immunity could hasten it), perhaps there would then be some hope that the timetable also can be accelerated significantly. The end of 2014 is still more than two full years away. That is a long time for the Obama administration to look at ongoing deaths and huge monetary outlays at a time when most Americans (excluding defense contractors and neocons) have had enough war and debt is the largest political issue in the country.

16 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    I was running errands this morning, so I missed the confirmation hearing for John Dunford, who is slated to take over in Afghanistan. Spencer Ackerman covered the hearing. He says Dunford talked about intending to stay past 2014, but noted that there could well be resistance from unexpected fronts:

    Dunford had less to say about actually salvaging the war he will command. He elided critical debates about the pace of pre-2014 troop reductions — even saying he wasn’t part of internal deliberations over them — and the ultimate size of the Afghan security forces. He didn’t discuss any U.S. operations beyond training those Afghans, which he called “the critical part of our effort,” and said little of substance about stopping Afghan soldiers and cops from killing their American mentors. Instead, he came armed with talking points about progress in the war — although recent military statistics show enemy attacks to be more frequent than before the troop surge — and declared, “our objectives are achievable.”

    Senators on the panel did not sound convinced. A frustrated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the war’s biggest congressional supporters, called Dunford a “blank slate” and made the surprising statement that if the U.S. “can’t accomplish the mission, I’m not sure why we should stay.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the “lack of progress [and] the surge in insider attacks paint a rather bleak picture.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) mused about cutting off funding for the war if the U.S. withdraws too many troops to perform the residual missions Dunford outline. The panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), however, encouraged Dunford to “present the positives” in Afghanistan and swiped at the media for emphasizing the negatives.

  2. bsbafflesbrains says:

    Isn’t the real question What does the MIC want? I’m sure they have plans for more wars that need more and different equipment.

  3. FrankProbst says:

    Put me in the “declare victory and go home” camp. Osama bin Laden is dead, and that was our big reason for going into Afghanistan to begin with. We’ll still be blowing shit up with drones, and we’ve made it clear with the bin Laden raid that we’re willing invade other countries to kill people we don’t like. Why are we still there?

  4. EH says:

    Hey, lets not underestimate the MIC’s attraction to war in Mali. Africa is a free market for the military much more than the ME these days.

  5. FrankProbst says:

    OT for this thread, but relevant to the Petraeus train wreck. Here’s the photo of the shirtless FBI agent, reported sent to several people:

    The joke is supposedly “Who’s the dummy?” I have to say, I’m finding it hard not to root for “shirtless FBI guy”. This looks totally harmless to me, and the “He sent a shirtless photo to Jill Kelley!!!” leak is looking more and more like a smear campaign to me.

  6. What constitution says:

    Whew! Now that have we all finally, at long last, how-could-we-live-without-it-for-so-long seen the “shirtless FBI guy” photo, can we please officially legend this the “TMI Scandal”? Not that America has to actually talk about anything else, but it’s just so unfair to Mrs. Petraeus to keep calling all these sub scandals “The Petraeus Affair.” Not that it isn’t fun, but…..

  7. orionatl says:

    the thorniest issue is – what?
    whether american soldiers are subject to afghani

    where have i heard that before?

    and what were the consequences?

    sounds like the dems have found a formula for avoiding the ages long republikan campaign formula:

    “the democrats lost …….”**

    **fill in the blank.

  8. klynn says:

    @Jim White:

    Totally agree. A bit “loaded” too. Would love to get more background on the piece. Especially considering it read like a prediction of the election outcome. Very curious and very Fox. I was doing some research and just accidentally came upon the piece. Found myself really thrown by how odd the content was and could not stop thinking about the content in the context of the election outcome and current events. The Fox “news motive” is quite curious. Especially the FL comment.

  9. Bob Schacht says:

    @orionatl: It is congenitally impossible for Republicans to be anti-war. It’s a losing position anyway. Afghanistan is not going to give us the kind of SOFA we want. Some of this may think of this as a war of liberation, but 99% of Afghans don’t. Any Afghan who argues for a SOFA of the kind we want will be branded as the Afghan equivalent of a Tory.

    Bob in AZ

  10. Nathanael says:

    If the US negotiates a “SOFA” with South Vietnam, I mean the Afghan “government”, it won’t mean a thing. The real Afghan government will still kick the US out.

    Gonna be interesting.

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