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Will the Afghan Jirga Reject American Commands?


The US wants to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan after it withdraws most combat troops next year and gets out, having lost yet another war. One sticking point about an agreement to have soldiers stay there is reluctance on the part of the Kabul government to grant exemption to US troops.

Many years ago I served in the British army in Cyprus where our soldiers occasionally enjoyed themselves excessively and created mayhem. (Officers, too, sometimes; and I recollect, at a sidewalk restaurant table, thumping a Greek Cypriot youth who gave a stray dog a piece of meat dipped in a hideously hot sauce;  but we’ll pass over that.)  On the night of one such incident I happened to be regimental orderly officer and was telephoned by the military police who said that one of our chaps had been arrested by the Cypriot police for being even more obstreperous than usual.

It was reported that the hostelry in which he had been socially engaged was now a shattered remnant of its former self and the local police had clapped him inside. So, said the MP corporal, would I please give the usual legal permission to take Gunner Lorimer out of the hands of the civilian police and bring him to our regimental guardroom?  It was, of course, in any British colony, quite unthinkable that a soldier might be dealt with by the natives, no matter how civilized they might be — and no matter in how uncivilized a manner he may have conducted himself.

As it happened, Gunner Lorimer was one of my own troop, and, while a good fellow, rather needed to be taught a lesson about behaving himself, so I said —  No, I wouldn’t give the order, and it would do him good to spend a night in a horrible Cypriot nick;  then next day they could pick him up and deliver him to face army justice in due course. The MP corporal laughed and said words to the effect that “Cor, Mr Cloughley, you are a one; that’s great; it’ll serve him right – but you’ll cop it, Sir.”

And, as usual for an MP corporal, he was accurate in his prediction: it served Lorimer right, because his cell-dwelling hangover diet next day was fish heads, unripe olives and tummy-running water in a lockup whose amenities would have attracted the approval of a masochistic Spartan.  He was brought back to the regiment in a chastened condition, and word got round the garrison that if you were a bit naughty down town you might not be taken to the comparative comfort of your regimental guardroom but could spend some time in a Cypriot slammer, and there was a fall in the number of incidents of extreme exuberance.

But that was yet to come, and the corporal was also right in saying that I would ‘cop it’, because, standing to attention in front of the Adjutant next day,  I was told that British soldiers could not possibly be subjected to local legal processes (“Do you realize what you’ve done, you fool?”)  and that I would perform an extra week’s duty as orderly officer to ensure that I would bear this in mind, which I have done for all these years.

It was rather like the present absurdity about jurisdiction over US soldiers in Afghanistan, if much less serious.   But, just like the colonial Brits, Washington insists that if a US soldier is alleged to have committed a crime in Afghanistan, no matter its gravity, he must be taken out of the country’s jurisdiction  and tried under US law.  (If he is prosecuted at all, of course.)

In justification of this contention, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that, “We have great respect for Afghan sovereignty . . .  But where we have forces in any part of the world . . . wherever our forces are found, they operate under the same standard. We are not singling out Afghanistan for any separate standard. We are defending exactly what the constitutional laws of the United States require.”

He was talking utter garbage.  (And I’m sad to say that because I admire him. I don’t know him, of course, but we served in Vietnam at the same time and I respect his later stance on the futility of that war.)  And it’s garbage because in March this year two US sailors were sent to prison by a Japanese court for raping a woman in Okinawa, so there is no question of it being ‘constitutional law’ for members of the US armed forces to be exempt from local trial when they commit crimes in foreign countries.

After the US invaded Iraq and destroyed the country it had subjected to vicious sanctions for so long,  it then sought to maintain a military presence there indefinitely, but the Iraqi government refused to allow a Status of Forces Agreement that would, as defense secretary Leon Panetta put it, “provide the appropriate immunity for our soldiers.”

Why should Iraq have signed any such agreement?  Why should it be ‘appropriate’ for US soldiers to be protected from justice in Iraq or anywhere else?   Just why should US soldiers be exempt from prosecution under the national laws of any country?  Or any soldiers, anywhere, for that matter?  But this is what America wants in Afghanistan, through a ‘bilateral security agreement.’

When he was put to the test of resolving the problem, President Karzai dodged making a decision, saying it “is beyond the capacity of the Afghan government, and only the Afghan people maintain the authority to decide on it”, which is nonsense, because he could easily have said yes or no.  So he has left the decision to a loya jirga, a meeting of thousands of prominent Afghans, the so-called ‘Elders’,  holding a jamboree in Kabul this week.

And what will happen if the CIA hasn’t been able to bribe a majority of the 3,000-plus jirga representatives to vote in favor of surrendering their national pride?  The spooks have been trying hard to do so:  the amounts involved are large, and I’ve heard that at least one trusted intermediary has vanished with a shrink-wrapped dollar-bill package rather than passing it to a well-known potential supporter voter.

I have to admit to a laugh about that, if only because I wonder under whose law the package-interceptor might be prosecuted in Dubai, where he already owns a nice apartment. But the questions remain: will the jirga play the American game?  Will it agree to US special forces continuing their unaccountable midnight  blitzes on Afghan houses in which deaths, casualties and illegal detentions are never reported, as demanded by Washington?

And will it, above all,  approve the passage of an Afghan law that says that Afghan law does not apply to US soldiers who break laws that apply to Afghans?

Now what would you do, if you were voting on such a matter in your country?  —  But of course you don’t have an apartment in Dubai.

Brian Cloughley’s website is

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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