KABUL U.S. and Afghan officials are likely to tussle over legal protections for American soldiers in Afghanistan when they begin negotiations on a security agreement that would allow some U.S. troops to remain beyond 2014.
Afghan officials say they expect the deal with the United States to include the number of U.S. troops permitted to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014; the number of bases where troops will be located, and who will control them; what those troops can and can't do and legal immunities for those soldiers.
Talks on the security agreement, which have not begun, follow the conclusion of another bilateral deal outlining the two countries' future ties, which U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed in Kabul in May.
This time, negotiators must tackle some of the most sensitive issues that were ultimately excluded from the first deal, even as many Afghans, and Karzai himself, chafe against a foreign troop presence that has lasted more than a decade.
If such talks failed, the United States would be forced to pull out a force now numbering 90,000 by the end of 2014, when NATO nations are due to remove most troops, despite few signs that a resilient Taliban insurgency will soon die out.
Aimal Faizi, chief spokesman for Karzai, said the agreement, which is supposed to be finished by next May, would focus on the "nature, scope and obligations" of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan after 2014.
"Both sides will start talking based on these three areas," Faizi told Reuters.
It's not known how many U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan will stay behind after the end of 2014.
The remaining force could include several tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, likely focusing on special forces operations targeting al Qaeda and other militants, advising Afghanistan's inexperienced military, and retain the ability to launch U.S. drones that target militants in neighboring Pakistan.
"The security agreement will touch upon the most contentious issues that have had times strained the relationship between the two countries - so I expect that these will take a very long time," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.
Long-standing Afghan demands to subject foreign soldiers to local law may be the main stumbling block for negotiations.
A HARDER LINE?
Whether, and when, a U.S. soldier might be tried in a local court was perhaps the most contentious issue when the United States hammered out a similar deal in 2008 with Iraq. Ultimately, the deal allowed Iraq to try U.S. soldiers for "grave" crimes committed off-duty, and off base.
As in Iraq, foremost in the mind of Afghan negotiators will likely be past missteps or abuse by American soldiers, along with years of civilian deaths that have occurred during NATO military operations.
A series of scandals involving American soldiers this year culminated in March when a U.S. staff sergeant is alleged to have walked off his base and shot at least 16 villagers in their homes.
The soldier accused in that case, Robert Bales, was whisked out of Afghanistan and is facing military trial in the United States.
Afghans also demanded that U.S. soldiers who burned copies of the Muslim holy book on a NATO base face local trial. But U.S. officials have indicated they may face only administrative discipline within the U.S. military.
A current U.S. troop agreement with Afghanistan, which has been in force since 2003, gives U.S. military personnel protection from prosecution in Afghan courts in most cases.
Yet Karzai, who critics see as bowing to Western interests, may be keen to be seen to assert Afghan sovereignty by taking a harder line in those negotiations.
At the same time, Katulis said, "the Afghan government's negotiating stance will be more limited than what we saw in Iraq last year because the Afghan government is much more dependent on external sources of support".
There is always the possibility that Afghanistan could ultimately rebuff the U.S. bid to secure its future troop base in Afghanistan beyond 2014 if the two countries can't hammer out a deal on troop immunity, or for other reasons.
Last year, U.S. officials abandoned talks for a deal that would have allowed some U.S. soldiers to remain in Iraq beyond the expiration of the two countries' security pact.
That is seen as far less likely in Afghanistan given the country's reliance on outside military power and the threat from the Taliban.
(Editing by Michael Georgy and Robert Birsel)