By Hafizullah Gardesh and Mina Habib
Afghan lawmakers have approved a strategic agreement with the United States, paving the way for a decade of continued relations following the 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops.
The US-Afghanistan Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement, signed in Kabul on May 2 by US President Barak Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, commits both countries to continued cooperation on security, democracy and reconstruction until the end of 2024.
Some 175 members of the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, approved the agreement on May 26, while five voted against and then walked out in protest. The pact was not debated on the day, although it was submitted to parliamentary committees prior to the vote.
Under the agreement, both countries will continue their close security and defence cooperation to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates and strengthen Afghanistan’s ability to defend itself.
The US stated that it “does not seek permanent military facilities in Afghanistan, or a presence that is a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbours”.
Washington also pledged not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launch-pad for attacks on other countries.
Afghanistan and the US pledged to protect human rights and democracy, while Kabul reaffirmed a “strong commitment” to pluralist government and free and fair elections.
Addressing the American public from the Bagram air base on May 2, Obama said the agreement marked the start of a new era.
“[W]e have travelled through more than a decade under the dark cloud of war. Yet here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon,” he said.
The agreement now has to be ratified by the upper house, the Meshrano Jirga, before Karzai signs it into law.
An atmosphere of tension preceded the vote, and some parliamentarians received death threats.
People claiming to represent the “Mullah Dadullah Front” – ostensibly a Taleban offshoot – texted and phoned numerous lawmakers threatening them with suicide attacks if they voted for the pact, The New York Times reported on May 19.
Mullah Dadullah, a Taleban commander in southern Afghanistan, was killed in May 2007 during a US-led operation in Helmand province.
The Taleban and its ally Hezb-e Islami have also denounced the agreement.
Supporters of the agreement said continued US assistance was necessary given Afghanistan’s fragile security situation, and predicted that the pact would curb the influence of neighbouring states.
Critics, however, said the agreement was worded too vaguely. They disputed Obama’s assertion that the US and Afghanistan would be equal partners, and questioned whether the pact was in their country’s best interests.
In parliament, the minority who opposed the agreement said it should have been debated.
“There are many ambiguities in the pact. I feel sorry for the members of parliament who made hasty decisions and voted for it without reading it or making themselves aware of its aims,” Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a legislator from Parwan province north of Kabul, said. “They may come to regret what they’ve done in future, but those regrets will be worthless.”
He claimed that while the US had agreed to refrain from “launching” attacks on third countries from Afghanistan, this might not stop its forces taking action from Afghan territory if an operation had already begun.
Khawasi accused the US of creating a “catastrophe” in Afghanistan over the past decade, and said there was nothing in the agreement to regulate the future actions of American troops.
“We saw how little respect the Americans had for the things we hold sacred,” he said, citing the burning of Korans at the Bagram air base in February. “The agreement contains no serious commitment that the Americans will avoid such actions in future… I am therefore a strong opponent of this pact.”
The Koran-burning incident was accidental, but prompted six days of rioting across the country. (See Afghan Anger Over Koran Burning.)
Abdul Rauf, who represents the northeastern province of Badakhshan in parliament also opposed the agreement, and said the suggestion that Afghanistan and the US could act as equals was misleading.
“The Americans… ignore our country’s laws. They take innocent people from their homes and take them to their prisons,” he said. “They invade people’s privacy and kill the innocent. Are these not clear violations of our sovereignty and independence? On what grounds can we be considered [an equal] party?”
Fereshta Amini, a member of parliament from the southwestern Nimroz province, was among the overwhelming majority who voted for the pact, arguing that it was in the war-torn country’s best interests.
“In order to fight against the conspiracies of our neighbours, we need to have a bigger force or power that will defend us in time of need,” she said.
Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker in Kabul, said the vote reflected widespread frustration at meddling by neighbouring countries.
“No Afghan wants to be harassed by neighbouring countries any longer,” she said. “The parliament gave these neighbours a hard slap by approving the agreement.”
Tehran is unhappy at the prospect of continued US influence, and on May 6 its foreign ministry denounced the agreement, saying it would destabilise Afghanistan.
“Iran is concerned about the strategic pact signed by Afghanistan and the US,” foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in a statement carried by the official news agency IRNA. “Not only will the strategic pact not resolve Afghanistan’s security problems, but it will increase the lack of security and stability there.”
Mehmanparast said Iran was concerned that the agreement did not clarify the future status of US military bases, nor was it clear what the role of American forces would be.
Abdul Sattar Sadat, a political analyst and director of the Afghan Lawyers’ Network, said the US had turned Afghan distrust of neighbouring countries to its own advantage in mustering support for the pact.
“People hate Iran and Pakistan. The US prepared the ground very well for this agreement, and perhaps future ones, by exploiting this hatred,” he said. “The agreement is like a bad and bitter medicine, but Afghans may have agreed to take it out of helplessness, in light of the current state of the country.”
Pakistan’s embassy declined to comment, saying the ambassador was not in Kabul.
Fazel Rahman Oria, a political analyst, predicted that the agreement would reduce the influence of both Tehran and Islamabad.
“In the near future, we will have a very strong Afghanistan and two very weak countries, Iran and Pakistan, facing us,” he said. “Afghanistan will play the role that Iran and Pakistan hitherto played. It will become an axis in regional and world relations, and will be one of the region’s powerful players.”
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR’s Afghanistan editor. Mina Habibis an IWPR-trained contributor in Kabul. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 433,