Afghan security agreement needed
Afghan security agreement needed
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

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.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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