Afghan security agreement needed
Kabul is waiting for President Hamid Karzai's promised Loya Jirga, where the country's political elite would examine whether to approve the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) authorizing a U.S. military presence after the 2014 transition. Most are betting that Karzai will soon call the country's elders together to bless the agreement. Some fear his message will be to kill it.
Just weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry and Karzai stood before the press corps in Kabul promising that the long-discussed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was a done deal, save a few tiny details. The photo-op belied the reality that Kabul is not quite ready to commit to a deal that would exempt U.S. soldiers from prosecution in Afghan courts. Within hours, Karzai backpedalled, stating that a Loya Jirga was required before the agreement could be signed.
Support for the agreement is not universal in Kabul or in Washington. For some in D.C., including liberals within President Obama's own party, the preference is to get all U.S. military out of Afghanistan immediately. For some in Karzai's camp, giving U.S. troops immunity from prosecution in Afghanistan is unacceptable.
Both camps should remember Iraq. Failure to reach a similar status of forces agreement resulted in a departure of virtually all U.S. forces, and the country has endured rising sectarian violence ever since. Afghanistan has the added threat of a still dangerous insurgency with al Qaeda links and sanctuary in Pakistan.
The BSA guarantees critical U.S. and international military support post 2014. So why is Kabul hedging? When I visited weeks ago, almost everyone I spoke with agreed it was needed – from warlords, to human rights workers, politicians, police, teachers and doctors. They wanted it approved and signed sooner rather than later because they realized that without foreign troops, their country’s security would be at risk.
But after a year of negotiations, Karzai seems stuck on the same two questions: What security guarantees will the U.S. offer if Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary to the Taliban, and why shouldn’t U. S. soldiers be tried in Afghanistan if they commit crimes there?
Karzai says he has grounds for his hesitation. Just weeks ago, he was incensed when U.S. troops dragged a Pakistani Taliban leader to Bagram Airfield for questioning after the Afghans reportedly convinced him to engage in peace talks. He also pointed to U.S. and NATO air strikes that Kabul claimed violated past accords and caused more civilian casualties.
Karzai still believes the U.S. needs him more than he or Afghanistan needs the U.S. He thinks the U.S. determination to degrade "core" al Qaeda and deny it a friendly government in Kabul remain a paramount U.S. interest—and he may be right—but not without a BSA.
What Kabul may not recognize is that, without a deal, Washington political forces continue to build against sending more money and troops to Afghanistan. Some in D.C. already argue that al Qaeda is so weak that no further expenditures of lives or treasure are justified.
Yet, in both Kabul and Washington, many doubt that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be ready to contain the Taliban without U.S. and NATO partners a year from now. Since January, the Taliban has upped the tempo of attacks against Afghan civilian and military targets. A BSA would force the Taliban to decide whether to keep fighting or accept a negotiated settlement conditioned on the redlines of ending the armed struggle, severing links to al-Qaeda and respecting the core of the Afghan constitution, including its protection for individual and women’s rights.
The BSA also has strategic and political implications. An agreement would give the political class some security that the next government can actually govern despite the ongoing insurgency, slow the rush of local capital to the Gulf and other “safer” investments, and encourage ethnic powerbrokers to support a national structure rather than their own regional fiefdoms. It would also incentivize the U.S., World Bank and others to fulfill their commitments of aid dollars, technical help and diplomatic presence.
Finally, a BSA would enable President Obama to avoid the charge that the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan a second time. The prospect of Taliban and al Qaeda forces tightening their grip on regional centers would leave U.S. leaders with unpalatable options: unauthorized drone strikes and Special Forces raids. The sooner both sides sign on the dotted line, the better for everyone.