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27 April 2012, Gateway House

U.S.-Afghanistan agreement: A welcome start

An important take-away from the preliminary pact reached by Kabul and Washington is that unlike the 1990s, the Americans are not just packing their bags and leaving. This is good news in terms of regional stability, and the upcoming NATO summit may answer some questions this draft agreement raises.

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The draft of the strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan was signed on April 22 in Kabul, and is an important achievement in the continuing process of the 2014 U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan.  The rather thin document is expected to grow in substance by May 20, when NATO leaders meet in Chicago for a summit and discuss the question of Afghanistan.  For now though, the draft raises more hard questions than it answers.

The most important take away from the preliminary document is that the Americans are not packing their bags and leaving as they did in the 1990s. A continued U.S. presence for at least 10 more years after 2014, when the bulk of NATO and U.S. troops depart, should give pause to the Taliban and neighbouring countries engaged in the “waiting game.” From India’s point of view, this is good news in terms of regional stability.

With the U.S.-Afghan document in hand, the Europeans too can begin to make their pledges for the stable future of Afghanistan. They had been quiet, waiting to judge the dynamic between Kabul and Washington before putting forth their own plan, and mindful of the active opposition to any long-term U.S. presence from both Pakistan and Iran, two key neighbours of Afghanistan.

The Taliban, predictably, denounced the U.S.-Afghanistan agreement, saying it was nothing but an attempt by Washington to inject secularism and prevent the rise of a “true” Islamic government. A continued U.S. presence would be a threat to “Islamic countries in the region” (read Pakistan and Iran) and it would prevent Afghanistan from developing political and military ties with its neighbours. To the extent that a U.S. presence would be a deterrent against excessive meddling by Iran and Pakistan, the Taliban have got it right. But whether a few thousand U.S. troops can impose real order is anyone’s guess, especially when 100,000 troops couldn’t do so.

That Washington and Kabul were able to agree on a strategic partnership against a background of horrific recent events involving U.S. troops is significant. The incidents of Quran-burning, the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier and ugly photos of U.S. troops with dismembered body parts of Afghan militants, poisoned the atmosphere. It took more than a year of hard negotiations to get a draft acceptable to both sides because of differences over night raids which have killed civilians, creating strong opposition among ordinary Afghans. The U.S. agreed to give Afghan forces the lead role in night raids while relegating itself to a supporting role. However, it is unrealistic to expect that the U.S. will not take unilateral action against top insurgents if there is good intelligence.

Control of the keys to the main military detention centre was another cause of contention for months. But the U.S. found a way around it. According to Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, the Memorandum Of Understanding that dealt with detainees leaves the door open for the U.S. to “block the release of detainees even after they are transferred to Afghan authority.” There are likely to be several other such MOUs which will help avoid the problem Washington faced in Iraq, where the Pentagon wanted to leave behind thousands of troops as a “residual force” but was unable to. The Pentagon wanted “immunity” for U.S. forces from future prosecution by the Iraqi government, a promise that was politically unacceptable to the Iraqi leadership.

In the end, the whole question became embroiled in the very idea of “foreign troops” in Iraq. The same question is swirling around in Afghanistan but this time the U.S. negotiators are better prepared to handle it.

Details of the draft agreement are under wraps mainly because they are neither filled nor final. At this stage, it is essentially an executive agreement, more conceptual than concrete. It envisages a “significant” presence of U.S. Special Forces to conduct successful counter-terrorism operations.

The tougher battle in Washington will likely be over a 10-year financial commitment to support Afghan security forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wanted a firm commitment “in writing” from Washington on U.S. financial support but U.S. officials impressed upon him that it was not possible, given the mechanics of the American government. The U.S. Congress approves foreign aid on a yearly basis, and for the executive branch to make a commitment to a foreign government is essentially meaningless. Karzai had said in a speech last week in Kabul, “Give us less, but mention it in the agreement. Give us less but write it down.” The fact that the draft was signed a few days after his speech is an indication that Karzai withdrew his demand.

The figure being discussed for American support ranges between $10 billion to $2.5 billion annually, a fraction of the estimated $110 billion a year that Washington currently spends in Afghanistan after the surge. The budgetary support would depend on the number of Afghan national forces that will be trained. The goal was to train and equip 350,000 Afghan security forces by early 2014 but some in the Obama Administration want that number reduced to 250,000 for budgetary reasons. It is also clear that the U.S. Congress will have an easier time approving aid for Afghanistan – any amount – if the Afghan government were to take concrete steps to fight corruption. An undercurrent of anger against sending American taxpayers’ money to a “corrupt” Afghan government is palpable among Congressional staffers and Washington policy wonks.

What the Obama Administration will argue is that while al-Qaeda has been severely hurt by counter-terrorism operations over the years, it has not disappeared. As Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and currently an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Thursday, the new al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, should not be underestimated. “He is trying to rebuild the al-Qaeda core. There is a heavy propaganda flow from him,” Riedel said. In addition, a “syndicate of terror” is developing inside Pakistan under the rubric of Difa-e-Pakistan or Defence of Pakistan, where prominent militants openly advocate jihad against America and India.

There is no way to determine how many U.S. troops would be adequate to fight the insurgents who will continue to operate in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In addition, the underdeveloped Afghan economy is unlikely to improve dramatically by 2014 to sustain the additional burden of departure of NATO forces. Many Afghans in the urban areas make a living from the jobs generated by “foreign troops.”

There are no easy answers to the hard questions. But now, there is also no appetite in Washington to continue the war in Afghanistan on a full scale.

Seema Sirohi, an international journalist and analyst, is a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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