Iraq: Understanding SOFA Posted by: McQ
on Wednesday, February 13, 2008
You may remember all the recent shouting and hand-waving on the left about the Bush administration trying to negotiate permanent bases in Iraq?
In fact, what they have been and are trying to negotiate is something we have with every country in which we have troops deployed. A "Status of Forces Agreement" or SOFA. In every foreign country in which I served, I had a SOFA card in my possession. As Sec. Rice and Sec. Gates discuss in their Washington Post piece today, it's a legal agreement as to how the military conducts business in that particular foreign country:
In these negotiations, we seek to set the basic parameters for the U.S. presence in Iraq, including the appropriate authorities and jurisdiction necessary to operate effectively and to carry out essential missions, such as helping the Iraqi government fight al-Qaeda, develop its security forces, and stem the flow of lethal weapons and training from Iran. In addition, we seek to establish a basic framework for a strong relationship with Iraq, reflecting our shared political, economic, cultural and security interests.
Nothing to be negotiated will mandate that we continue combat missions. Nothing will set troop levels. Nothing will commit the United States to join Iraq in a war against another country or provide other such security commitments. And nothing will authorize permanent bases in Iraq (something neither we nor Iraqis want). And consistent with well-established practice regarding such agreements, nothing will involve the U.S. Senate's treaty-ratification authority — although we will work closely with the appropriate committees of Congress to keep lawmakers informed and to provide complete transparency. Classified briefings have already begun, and we look forward to congressional input.
In short, nothing to be negotiated in the coming months will tie the hands of the next commander in chief, whomever he or she may be. Quite the contrary, it will give the president the legal authority to protect our national interest — and the latitude to chart the next administration's course.
The SOFA is intended to clarify the terms under which the foreign military is allowed to operate. Typically, purely military issues such as the locations of bases and access to facilities are covered by separate agreements. The SOFA is more concerned with the legal issues associated with military individuals and property. This may include issues like entry and exit into the country, tax liabilities, postal services, or employment terms for host-country nationals, but the most contentious issues are civil and criminal jurisdiction over the bases. For civil matters, SOFAs provide for how civil damages caused by the forces will be determined and paid. Criminal issues vary, but the typical provision in U.S. SOFAs is that U.S. courts will have jurisdiction over crimes committed either by a servicemember against another servicemember or by a servicemember as part of his or her military duty, but the host nation retains jurisdiction over other crimes.
Our SOFA agreement with the Republic of Korea is here. Japan here. Etc.
Negotiating a SOFA is actually a step in normalizing relations between us and Iraq. It would take our forces from being subject only to our own legal parameters to conforming to those of the host country. In more explicit terms, we move from being occupiers to guests of the host government and accountable to it under the SOFA negotiated.