By Carlo Muñoz - 01/14/13 08:11 PM EST
In his first comments since last week's one-on-one meetings with President Obama on the American postwar plan for Afghanistan, Karzai said the issue of U.S. troop immunity is "under discussion," telling reporters in Kabul that "it is going to take eight to nine months before we reach an agreement."
Negotiations between American, NATO and Afghan leaders on the new troop immunity deal are scheduled for later this year, according to Karzai. The deal could coincide with the administration's final decision on troop numbers in Afghanistan after the 2014 drawdown.
Gen. John Allen, head of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan, suggested as little as 6,000 U.S. soldiers or as many a 10,000 could remain in country after 2014. Administration officials have also floated the notion of leaving no American soldiers behind after the withdrawal deadline.
After a recent visit to the country, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Tenn.) said Monday that he thinks a 10,000-man force would be the right size for a postwar U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
But in the end, regardless of how many boots on the ground Washington opts to leave in the country, the decision whether to protect U.S. troops from Afghan prosecution may not be Karzai's to make.
On Monday, the Afghan president told reporters the decision could fall to a handful of powerful politicians and local elders that make up the country's so-called "loya jirga," according to Karzai.
The group has already played an influential role in crafting the country's position on the looming U.S. withdrawal and on the administration's postwar plans.
If finalized, U.S. forces left behind in Afghanistan would not be subject to criminal prosecution by Afghan courts for counterterrorism or other combat operations conducted in the country after 2014.
Washington has similar agreements with almost every country where U.S. forces are deployed, Obama said during a joint press conference with Karzai at the White House last Friday.
The lack of an immunity deal for U.S. troops was a key factor in the failed attempt to set up a postwar security deal in Iraq, setting the stage for the recent wave of sectarian violence against Iraqi forces and civilians in the country.
Looking to avoid a repeat of Iraq, the White House reportedly made concessions on several key security issues in order to get the beginnings of an immunity deal in place.
The White House has agreed to hand over complete control of U.S.-run detention facilities in the country, as well as pull out American military units stationed inside Afghan villages, Karzai said during last Friday's press conference.
The immunity deal would reverse a Pentagon decision to retain custody of hundreds of suspected Taliban fighters captured by American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
U.S. forces officially transitioned control of all American detention facilities to Kabul last year, but retained control over those high-value detainees.
The drawdown of U.S. forces inside Afghan villages is part of Obama's decision to accelerate the handover of security operations to Afghan forces, announced during Friday's press conference.
"With those issues resolved, as we did today ... I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty would not be compromised," Karzai said on Friday.