An Afghan police officer keeps an eye out while a man prays on a hilltop in… (Daniel Berehulak / Getty…)
KABUL, Afghanistan — In talks that are likely to be confrontational, the United States and Afghanistan are scheduled to begin negotiations Thursday on a new security arrangement after U.S. combat troops withdraw from the war-torn country by the end of 2014.
The talks, which could last up to a year, will attempt to reach agreement on a new joint arrangement to satisfy the U.S. goal of denying terrorists a base of operations and Afghanistan's demands for sovereignty. They'll start amid a climate of suspicion and mistrust between the two countries.
The Afghan government has long complained about the conduct of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, particularly night raids by Special Operations troops and airstrikes and other attacks that kill civilians.
U.S. commanders and troops are incensed over so-called insider attacks, also known as green-on-blue killings. Afghan soldiers and police — or insurgents wearing Afghan security force uniforms — have killed 58 NATO troops this year, including 35 Americans, in at least 42 attacks.
The most divisive issue is immunity from Afghan prosecution for U.S. soldiers accused of crimes, a jurisdictional dispute that wrecked similar talks between the U.S. and Iraq last year. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has demanded that U.S. troops answer to Afghan law. The U.S. has insisted that troops accused of crimes in Afghanistan be tried in the American legal system.
Because of disagreements over legal jurisdiction, U.S. and Iraqi negotiators were unable to reach a formal agreement for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after combat forces withdrew in December. In Afghanistan, the issue has taken on renewed urgency after the killing in March of 16 civilians in Kandahar province, in which U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged with murder.
Negotiations in Kabul over legal jurisdiction are expected to be pushed back to later in the talks, after less incendiary issues have been discussed.
In public statements, Afghan government officials have insisted that the U.S. guarantee that it will respond to any cross-border incursion or artillery attack on their territory. Afghanistan has long complained about infiltration by insurgents from Pakistan and about cross-border shelling by its eastern neighbor.
The talks will play out against the backdrop of stalled attempts to forge a peace deal with the Taliban, which enjoys a haven in Pakistan's border tribal areas.
The U.S. has made it clear to Afghanistan that the talks are intended to achieve a status-of-forces framework that includes defining the legal position of U.S. forces, not a defense treaty pledging military intervention against aggressors.
"We are not negotiating a security guarantee," said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Afghan officials have also expressed concern that the U.S. might use Afghanistan territory to launch a strike against Iran.
The talks, formally known as negotiations for a bilateral security agreement, will attempt to set conditions for U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 as part of a "train, advise and assist" mission. President Obama and his national security team will determine the number of troops to be proposed.
The talks are aimed at building a security framework, not a detailed agreement.
Negotiators will attempt to set broad outlines for air rights over Afghanistan and the use and disposition of hundreds of U.S.-built bases — especially the huge air bases in Bagram and Kandahar. They may also discuss potential roles for U.S. Special Operations troops and unmanned drone aircraft, as well as the future of existing U.S. drone ground control stations in Afghanistan — subject to a final White House position on these issues.
The details of these and other issues will be hammered out in "implementing documents" to be negotiated after any security agreement is signed.
When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the U.S. negotiating team last month, she said the talks could well become contentious. "We know that difficult days lie ahead," she said.
Waheed Muzhda, a security analyst in Kabul, said he does not expect Karzai to back down and agree to U.S. jurisdiction for American soldiers accused of crimes, particularly in incidents involving Afghan civilian deaths.
"That is something not acceptable to Afghans," Muzhda said. He added that Karzai remains suspicious of U.S. motives in Afghanistan.
Under a strategic partnership agreement signed by the U.S. and Afghanistan in May, the talks have a deadline of one year. The first session is expected to last just one day. Most, if not all, of the sessions are expected to take place in Kabul.
The U.S. delegation is headed by James B. Warlick, the deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eklil Hakimi, Afghanistan's ambassador in Washington, leads the Afghan team.
"We hope the [final] document itself, including the negotiations, will provide some reassurance to the people of Afghanistan," the senior U.S. official said.
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.