Can there be an orderly withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan by the end of next year? This month’s meeting between Hamid Karzai and John Kerry raised hopes, but potential problems linger.
The Afghan president and the US secretary of state concluded their talks by saying that they are close to finishing the much-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). This pact envisages 5,000 to 10,000 uniformed Americans remaining in Afghanistan as 2015 begins, down from about 54,500 now.
Terms of the BSA were not revealed, and despite the upbeat US assessment, there was no agreement on the issue of immunity from Afghan law for the US soldiers who remain. And until that is settled there can be no BSA, Mr Kerry said. And that situation would compel the US to withdraw completely from Afghanistan.
That’s what happened when Iraq denied immunity to remaining US forces in 2011: the US quickly brought home all of its troops, except a few training specialists.
If the same thing happens in Afghanistan it will also mean the departure of European troops, and will cut off of virtually all funding from the allied coalition – money that pays roughly 80 per cent of the Afghan government’s bills.
A Loya Jirga, an assembly of tribal elders, will now consider the immunity question. Most of these elders are beneficiaries of the status quo and of American largesse.
Mr Karzai has kept open his option to renege on commitments on other BSA matters agreed to with Mr Kerry, claiming he has yet to examine details and technical points.
Progress towards a BSA became possible when the US abandoned its demand to be free to conduct unilateral military operations after 2014. However, the immunity clause includes a guaranteed right to self-defence for US troops; if this is approved it may in some cases permit unilateral action.
From emerging reports it is unclear how the US would satisfy the Afghan demand that security be guaranteed as if the country were a Nato member. Such an undertaking, which the US is unlikely to have offered, would put the US in direct conflict with Pakistan any time there is a cross-border element to a security situation.
There are also several other points for the US and Mr Karzai to ponder in attempting to negotiate this deal.
For the US, a sufficient residual force could provide security and stability while most troops and equipment are withdrawn by the end of 2014. It could also provide a face-saver, making the US the only superpower to become involved in Afghanistan that has not walked out in complete defeat.
For Mr Karzai, a deal would be a chance to prolong and perhaps preserve a system that he has created and upon which his legacy depends. A BSA would help Mr Karzai against domestic rivals, including the vice-president, Mohammad Fahim, and Abdul Rashid Dostum – both of whom even run their own militias.
While Mr Karzai’s need to drive a hard bargain to placate nationalist Afghans is understood, he risks being jettisoned if he is seen to be an impediment to orderly US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Even if the agreement is reached, its implementation will be doubtful if the US runs into serious casualty rates in the lead-up to 2015. Pressure from the US public and a wary Congress would be difficult for Barack Obama, an already-embattled president, to withstand.
As long as the Karzai regime survives only with foreign support, that support will allow resistance groups – often lumped contemptuously together as “the Taliban” – to rally Afghans against “foreign forces”. The Najibullah regime abandoned by the Soviets at the end of the 1980s survived for two years; it is not clear that Mr Karzai could last as long.
The hastily-raised Afghan National Security Force is not developing well enough to be capable of post-2014 defence of the government. The desertion rate of 30 per cent means almost a third of the force must be found and trained anew annually. Worse, recruits owe loyalty to their tribes or warlords, not the central authority. The security force is meant to help shore up a regime planted by a foreign force; resistance to this is innate in Afghan culture.
The Karzai-Kerry announcement notwithstanding, Taliban chief Mullah Omar has warned that “continued [foreign] military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 would justify the continuation of war and bring grave consequences”.
Another point: a troubled Afghanistan would not help Pakistan, the most concerned neighbour. Pakistan loses if some US forces stay and resistance continues to spill over into Pakistan. But Pakistan also loses if full US withdrawal leaves Afghans to slug it out among themselves, as this will mean jihadis crossing over, and hordes of refugees streaming into Pakistan.
The interests of all other neighbours – Iran, Russia, China and the Central Asian republics – coincide: they all want to see a non-Taliban regime installed in Kabul.
But as long as the Taliban is the face of resistance to foreign presence in Afghanistan, it will remain a formidable force. If a BSA can be agreed, the US will then need to focus quickly on arriving at an understanding with the Taliban. Afghanistan cannot return to peace without Taliban participation.
The final act in the Afghan drama is yet to begin.
Sajjad Ashraf, a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973-2008, is adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore, and associate fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore