The secrecy surrounding the deliberations on the yet to be inked US-Afghan Strategic Partnership is causing considerable disquiet both within and outside Afghanistan.
Since June this year, both countries are locked in secretive discussions for finalizing a long-term security agreement that would clear the ways for retention of US troops (20,000 to 30,000 approx) in the country beyond 2014. These troops, based in at least five bases (joint facilities) in Afghanistan for the next two or three decades, would conduct specialized counter terrorism operations and provide secondary support to the Afghan forces.
Drawdown of the US forces from Afghanistan has already begun and by the end of 2012, 30,000 troops would have returned home. However, even with the commencement of the drawdown, neither the reconciliation process with the Taliban has made any substantial progress, nor have the Afghan forces shown any extraordinary signs of being able to take lead in the country’s security. Amidst fears of a rise in Taliban influence, the Afghans are concerned that the gains made thus far would be lost. Even then, finalizing the US plan of extending its stay in the country can be tricky.
Publicly American officials deny the establishment of strategic bases and presence of US troop levels beyond 2014. The new US ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, has said the US does not want to project its influence in the region by remaining in Afghanistan. However, the ambivalent choice of words by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that Washington did not want any “permanent” bases in Afghanistan, allows the US to explore a variety of possible arrangements.
Even as negotiations proceed, the Afghans seem to be playing a delicate balancing game. They have rejected the first draft prepared by the US in its entirety, preferring to draft their own proposal. President Hamid Karzai and senior officials see an enduring American presence and broader strategic relationship as essential, in part to protect Afghanistan from the onslaught of the insurgency and its meddlesome neighbors. At the same time, in new found assertiveness, they have made it clear that Afghanistan will only sign a long-term deal only if the US meets conditions set by the Afghans.
Some of the main contentious issues laid out by the Afghans are: (a) the foreign troops should work within the Afghan legal framework (b) they should not take prisoners or conduct night raids (c) they must not own private prisons (d) they have to equip the Afghan air force and (e) US troops cannot launch operations outside Afghanistan from these bases, thus precluding the possibility of Abbottabad type of raids that killed Osama bin Laden. Much of these conditions are directed at blunting domestic opposition and conspiracy theories in the region on prolonged US presence.
It’s a Catch-22 situation for the Afghans. The deal is crucial, for it will assure the Afghanistan of some security even after majority of the US troops pull out. At the same time, there are also fears that the foreign forces will eternally occupy Afghanistan. Such fears are not only been articulated by close advisers of President Karzai from parties like Hizb-e-Islami, but also neighboring countries like Iran, Russia and China.
Karzai is not oblivious to such regional sensitivities. Rangin Spanta, the Afghan national security adviser and the lead Afghan negotiator on the partnership said, “We are facing a common threat in international terrorist networks. They are not only a threat to Afghanistan but to the west. We want a partnership that brings regional countries together, not divides them.”
Within the Afghan parliament too, President Karzai is in conflict with the parliamentarians over plans for a “loya jirga” or grand assembly to discuss future relations with the US. In stead of settling the matter within the Parliament, where support for Karzai is dwindling, the President wants the issue to be taken to a traditional assembly.
The parliamentarians are not pleased with the move that undermines their authority as representatives of the people. Traditional “loya jirgas” are periodically convened in Afghanistan to debate important national issues and arrive at a consensus. However, in recent times, hand picked delegates have been included in such assemblies and jirgas turning into assemblies of yes men rather than retaining their original purpose of real forums of debate and discussion.
It is indeed a tricky business for Karzai and the US to balance competing interests of multiple players involved. Differences have emerged even on the pace of negotiations. While Americans would like to seal the deal early, President Karzai worries that the talk of permanent presence of US troops would be an impediment for negotiations with the Taliban who have demanded withdrawal of foreign forces as a precondition for talks.
Much of Karzai’s bargaining capacity remains intrinsically linked to the performance of the Afghan forces against the Taliban in the areas that have passed under their control. If Taliban is seen to be gaining in its violent campaign of intimidation and retribution, the President might have to accept the deal on Washington’s terms.
This article appeared at Al Arabiya and is reprinted with permission