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Op-Ed

The Stakes, Politics, and Implications of the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement

Vanda Felbab-Brown

The Stakes and the Mood


At the beginning of next week, a Loya Jirga, a gathering of 3,000 Afghan elders, politicians, members of parliament, and other representatives selected by President Hamid Karzai will make potentially momentous decisions about Afghanistan’s future and the role of United States in their country. They will either confirm or not, and/or advise on, the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the United States.

The BSA is a key document that will permit the United States to retain some military forces in Afghanistan after 2014. As a continuing U.S. military presence is seen as essential for other Western countries that have participated in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to also retain forces in Afghanistan, the lack of a BSA between Afghanistan and United States will mean not only that zero U.S. forces will stay in Afghanistan after 2014, but also that few, if any, European and coalition- partner forces will remain. In the absence of a BSA, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be completely on their own to provide security for the Afghan people. The United States military will be out of Afghanistan, and so will the vast majority, if not all, of ISAF forces.

U.S. and ISAF military commanders believe that continuing Western assistance and advice to ANSF is still critical, and that in the absence of it, the security environment in Afghanistan may significantly deteriorate. The United States has made enormous investments in Afghanistan, sacrificing much blood and treasure, and feels a commitment to the Afghan people. It thus does not want to see security in Afghanistan worsening, particularly to the level of a renewed civil war.

U.S. government officials also believe that the United States still has important counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan, as some seventy al Qaeda operatives are believed to operate there and remain motivated to hit U.S. and Western civilian and military targets. A significant degradation of security in Afghanistan after 2014 – with, for example, territories falling into the hands of the Taliban, or local violent contestation emerging in various parts of the country among its ethnic groups or powerbrokers – could also eventually provide new safe-havens for militant terrorist groups, a scenario the United States is keen to avoid. An ability to operate drones from Afghanistan to hit terrorist targets in Pakistan, and bases from which to operate counterterrorism forces, would enhance the U.S. counterterrorism objectives.

However, many U.S. officials, such as members of the U.S. Congress, argue that the United States should completely get out of Afghanistan. Both the U.S. public and many elected representatives in the U.S. Congress believe that the United States has done enough for Afghanistan and that it sufficiently beat down the terrorist threat in the area, and now it is time to go home and focus on U.S. domestic problems, including economic growth, unemployment, social issues, aging infrastructure, and a bitterly polarized political environment. So many politicians and citizens would not be sad at all if a BSA were not signed.

The Diplomatic Tangle

Negotiations over the BSA dominated U.S.-Afghan diplomatic relations in 2013. U.S. diplomats had hoped to conclude the negotiations by October 2013, but the timeline was ultimately missed. Even though about 80% of the deal had been worked out early on, with the Afghan side getting most of the language it wanted, three issues in particularly have bewildered the negotiations. Afghan negotiators have demanded U.S. guarantees against Pakistan’s military interference in Afghanistan — potentially obligating the United States to attack Pakistan — which the United States has categorically refused. Afghan negotiators have also sought to secure firm, specific, multiyear financial aid commitments from the United States, a request that violates the U.S. constitution as the U.S. Congress allocates foreign aid on a yearly basis. The United States appears to have compromised, though exactly how is not yet clear, on its key demand that U.S. counterterrorism units targeting al Qaeda (not the Taliban) continue to operate independently after 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sought to channel even counterterrorism operations through ANSF, with the U.S. side providing intelligence only.

A nonnegotiable U.S. requirement pertains to the legal immunity of U.S. soldiers. The Afghan government sought to eliminate it and subject U.S. soldiers to prosecution in Afghan courts. In many countries where the United States sends its soldiers, it demands such immunity. In a place a corrupt as Afghanistan — where prosecutors have no true capacity to collect evidence, defense teams are weak, and justice is often for sale — the United States will not compromise on the issue of immunity. Thus the United States categorically refuses to permit any U.S. soldiers to remain in Afghanistan in the absence of immunity guarantees. Whether or not to grant immunity will be a key consideration for the Loya Jirga and hence a determinative factor of whether a BSA is finalized and U.S. soldiers remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

The Different Strategic Perspectives

The difficulties in concluding the BSA reflect the vastly divergent strategic viewpoints between Washington and President Karzai. President Karzai wants the United States to bring far greater pressure on Pakistan to stop Pakistan from providing safe-havens to Afghan Taliban leadership and soldiers. The Afghan President refuses to recognize that the resilience of the Afghan insurgency is also critically a function of the mis-governance, corruption, criminality, and abuse perpetrated by the Afghan government and associated powerbrokers. While the United States has tried hard, but with little success to get Pakistan to crack down on militants on its territory, including the Afghan Taliban, it also believes that the quality of Afghan security force and governance will critically determine the level of militancy in Afghanistan and the chance that Afghanistan will again slide into ethnic infighting or civil war. In other words, there is much that Afghanistan needs to do to clean up its own house.

President Karzai also appears wedded to a strategic belief that is fundamentally different from how the United States government and public see its engagement in Afghanistan and the region—namely, that the United States cannot get away from Afghanistan because the United States seeks to use Afghanistan as a platform for pursuing a “New Great Game” in Central Asia against China and Russia, its presumed key strategic focus. That strategic understanding is far from how Washington views its engagement in the region. It has identified East Asia as America’s priority area of strategic focus, not Afghanistan or Central Asia. While managing a peaceful rise of China is Washington’s most important foreign policy priority, Washington has identified Southeast Asia and India as arenas for affecting such objectives, not Afghanistan or Central Asia. The United States also continues to be mired in the Middle East, with crises burning in Syria and Egypt, a cold war on between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and many intense U.S. investments in resolving the difficult Israel-Palestine issue. Many U.S. politicians, and even arguably many in the White House, increasingly regard Afghanistan as an unwise liability and of little strategic interest.

The big implication of this mismatch of strategic understandings is that President Karzai believes he has all the leverage and can delay the agreement and push for more and more concessions, while, in fact, the United States is all too ready to walk away. Indeed, President Karzai’s foreign policy of brinkmanship — constantly generating crises, verbally attacking the United States and ISAF, and visibly shopping for new friends in Russia, China, Iran, and India to use as leverage against the United States and NATO — depletes the remaining fragile support in the United States for the Afghanistan effort.

The Military Implications

A key BSA benefit for Afghanistan is continual U.S. and international support for the Afghan security forces. After the handover of security responsibility to ANSF throughout Afghanistan in June of this year, the ANSF performed well tactically. The Taliban failed in its objective of discrediting the ANSF and retaking territory. However, the Taliban military campaign worsened security for many Afghan civilians, with many district level government officials assassinated by the Taliban and even by ordinary citizens.

And importantly, Afghan security forces are still plagued by serious problems. The 2013 casualty levels for ANSF — partially caused by poor medical evacuation capabilities — will be very difficult for the ANSF to continue absorbing. Afghan air assets are nascent, and most medevac takes place by land. Overall, the “tail” (support) side of ANSF capacities continues to suffer significant deficiencies. Logistical systems and maintenance are dysfunctional and pervaded by corruption and clientelism. Not just the logistics component of the ANSF, but the forces overall are fissured along ethnic and patronage lines. Intelligence and other specialty enablers also continue to suffer from a myriad of problems, and constitute a big hole in transition plans. A U.S. and international military presence after 2014 would provide continuing advice and some assistance to the Afghan forces with those important deficiencies.

Even if the BSA is ultimately signed, it remains unclear as to how many U.S. and ISAF soldiers would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. While former ISAF commanders and Afghanistan experts have called for between 15,000 and 20,000 NATO soldiers, increasingly it appears that 10,000 may be the maximum number, with a U.S. deployment as small as 3,000. Such a small size of the international force would also greatly limit what missions the force could take on, particularly if force protection requirements and anti-al-Qaeda units consume the bulk of the deployment. It thus no longer appears feasible for ISAF to continue, as was previously planned, directly providing ANSF with the enablers. Any post-2014 mission would be only to train and advise, likely limited to corps-level and ministry advising and oversight of external financing and no actual battlefield engagement for the foreign troops. The security environment that the ANSF will face in 2014 and 2015 will thus be progressively tough; and all the tougher if all foreign soldiers are out.

The Political and Economic Implications

A sustained Western military presence would also give a psychological boost to many Afghans who understandably fear significant security deterioration after 2014. Such psychological assurance may have an important impact even during the critical 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan. Even though the ANSF will be in charge of providing security and Western forces will continue to be drawn down, the knowledge that U.S. and Western forces will remain in some assistance capacity after 2014 would help anchor the stakes that Afghan politicians have within the system and mitigate the tendencies to conduct politics through muscle tactics and problematic deals and for losers in the elections to resort to riots and insurrections. A sustained Western presence also would likely help temper dangerous hedging behavior on the part of Afghan powerbrokers, such as the resurrection of militias or efforts to appropriate Afghan Local Police units as their personal protection forces, or efforts by them or even members of the ANSF to strike local deals of accommodation with the Taliban. It may also provide a damper on emerging ethnic tensions. Obviously, a sustained Western military presence is no guarantee of better outcomes, but it provides a crucial positive enabling environment. It would also reassure Afghan civil society — which is critical for launching more just, effective, and equitable governance in Afghanistan, capable of breaking with the corruption, abuse, criminality, and exclusionary politics of the current political elite and starting to serve all of the Afghan people.

The Taliban has been vehemently opposed to the BSA, as opposition to any Western military presence serves its nationalist propaganda, justifies its fighting, and allows it to gloss over the large civilian casualties the Taliban has caused. The prospect of all foreign troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014 also greatly strengthens it militarily — it would be far easier for the group to do battle with the ANSF without the West supporting government forces.

The lack of a U.S. and ISAF post-2014 military presence thus has several implications for negotiating with the Taliban, beyond the battlefield: No Western presence after 2014 means an emboldened Taliban that will all the more believe that it can negotiate on its terms and extract great concessions in any negotiated deal. If there is a strong prospect of no Western presence, the Taliban will have every incentive to drag out the negotiations well into 2015 or longer. It might even come to believe again that it can militarily win enough territory not to engage in national-level negotiations. The lack of Western military presence after 2014 also increases the ability of the Taliban or other Afghan political and ethnic factions to subsequently violate the terms agreed upon.

Whether any Western military forces will stay in Afghanistan after 2014 also has important economic implications. As a result of Western departure, Afghanistan has already suffered a big economic shrinkage in 2013, can anticipate only small growth in 2014, and will likely face a severe economic decline after 2014, including a big loss of jobs that had been generated by the Western military presence. A sustained Western presence would reassure both foreign and Afghan investors and help mitigate capital flight. The United States and the international community have been promising Afghanistan that economic aid will continue flowing in for years to come; but the ability of Western development agencies and NGOs to operate in Afghanistan and deliver projects particularly outside of Kabul will be a function of security and protection. And it is perhaps a sad reality, but nonetheless a reality, that national legislatures appropriating foreign aid tend to be more generous to places where their troops are deployed. Unfortunately, all too easily, Washington can rapidly begin to forget about Afghanistan and the promises made to its people.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by BBC Persian Online.