Now, thanks to a resurgent al-Qaida and renewed Sunni-Shia violence, the monthly death tolls of sectarian violence have been approaching the dark days of 2007-08, before the U.S. “surge” put a lid on the factional fighting.
This spring, resurgent violence prompted the Iraqi government to grit its teeth and ask the U.S. to discreetly send back U.S. advisers, drone operators and intelligence analysts.
The request remains under extended consideration, but there is little enthusiasm for it among the military, in Congress and least of all in U.S. public opinion. U.S. troops are not there partly because the Iraqi government demanded they be subject to Iraqi law, police and courts. U.S. commanders said no, insisting that American soldiers would remain subject to U.S. military law and courts. Absent that agreement, the U.S. packed up and left.
Now the problem is recurring in Afghanistan, where the U.S. still has 60,000 troops, according to the International Security Assistance Force. The Obama administration has talked about slowly drawing down that number to about 34,000 in early 2014. The Afghan government would be wise to grant immunity from Afghan law to the U.S. troops asked to remain there. Of course, the troops would be subject to American military law and American military courts. Historically, the U.S. military has always displayed a firm hand at dealing with its members who commit crimes on foreign soil.
The U.S. and Afghanistan have a draft agreement that provides for just that, but it still must be approved by up to 3,000 members of a special Afghan assembly called a Loya Jirga, scheduled to meet in November. The agreement also must not offend the prickly pride of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai should sign the pact, formally known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, before he leaves office next April. Iran, the Taliban and major forces within Pakistan want to see the U.S. out, removing a major obstacle to their attempts to influence the country.
Strictly from the point of Afghan self-interest, it would be best if a U.S. presence stayed on — to help stabilize the country, to continue training the Afghan security forces and to ensure U.S. development aid keeps flowing. A majority of U.S. citizens also want our forces out of Afghanistan, and the sooner the better.
Iraq should be an object lesson to Kabul: Once we’re out, we’re out.