By Boris Volkhonsky
On Sunday, the U.S. and Afghanistan reached a deal on one of the most controversial issues in their relations – the one concerning night raids. Afghan defense minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak and the top U.S. and NATO general in Afghanistan General John Allen signed an agreement which gives Kabul an effective veto on operations to capture and kill insurgent leaders. From now on, all raids in Afghanistan will require approval and leadership by Afghan forces. Also, it will be Afghans’ responsibility to hold and interrogate prisoners.
Night raids conducted by Americans have been for a long time raising resentment among Afghans because of a huge number of civilian casualties. Also, the common practice of such raids allowed the U.S. and NATO soldiers to enter the Afghans’ homes in the middle of the night without any proper explanation.
Even the obedient Afghan President Hamid Karzai often used to raise his voice against such raids calling them a violation of Afghan sovereignty.
The issue of raids has been one of the main obstacles for another, broader agreement on the future of the U.S. (and possibly other NATO countries’) forces in Afghanistan after the pullout in 2014.
Although the U.S. authorities have more than once proclaimed that the U.S. is not seeking permanent presence in Afghanistan and is not willing to maintain any bases in the country, it is obvious that they will not leave the present Karzai government on its own. The two options for the U.S. are either to sign a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Hamid Karzai, or to reach some kind of power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. The deal on night raids removes the obstacles put forward by President Karzai to an overall agreement with the U.S.
The concrete details of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan are not yet clear, but Washington’s intention is to work out at least the main principles of it by the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21.
As of now, the U.S. is planning to maintain enough forces in order to teach and instruct Afghan security personnel and armed forces, and to ensure that Al Qaeda is kept at bay.
The possibility of achieving both tasks under present circumstances seems rather vague.
First, as the Iraqi experience has shown, the number of so called “instructors” and “advisors” may well be comparable to that of combat troops. After the U.S. fled Iraq in the summer of 2010, they left behind 50,000 instructors. And had it not been for the intense pressure from Iraqi authorities, a large portion of them might have stayed well after the end of 2011. Hamid Karzai is very much unlikely to exert similar pressure. And although he still reiterates his demands to outline concrete details of American presence in Afghanistan after 2014, he really has no choice: it is either the continuation of the present totally dependent status, or the loss of power to the Taliban.
Second, the present level of competence and ability of Afghan security personnel is hardly sufficient for conducting any kind of special operation in the war-torn country. And this means that the effectiveness of the operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be diminished irrespective of how many American instructors are left behind to teach their Afghan colleagues. What is more important, ordinary Afghans, even those serving in Afghan army and security forces, lack the motivation to fight against their countrymen for the sake of foreign occupiers.
So, keeping Al Qaeda at bay now seems even a much less attainable task than ever before.
But by signing the deal on night raids, the U.S. has given Hamid Karzai’s government a carrot, and now may expect that the strategic partnership agreement will be forged before the NATO summit. And this leaves open very lucrative chances for further working under the provisions of the new agreement which, knowing the U.S. practices, may well ignore all the previously reached ones.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies