This year has been a rough one thus far for the bilateral U.S.-Afghanistan strategic partnership as scandal after scandal has weakened the chains that have connected both countries together for the past decade.
The first major incident occurred inside the Bagram Air Base, where U.S. forces accidently disposed of Qurans, triggering widespread protests across the country. Only a few weeks later, a single U.S. soldier turned himself in after mowing down 17 Afghan civilians (many of whom happened to be women and children) in the middle of the night. In the latest embarrassment, The Los Angeles Times released a series of graphic photographs (two years in the making) in which U.S. and Afghan soldiers were seen posing next to the bodies of dead insurgents – a scandal that prompted a quick rebuke from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and NATO commander Gen. John Allan.
Yet even amid the explosive political repercussions that occurred as a consequence of all of these incidents, Washington and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai were still able to work out a draft text on a strategic partnership into the next decade, with President Barack Obama making a surprise visit to Kabul to sign the deal. For two governments that have often been at opposite ends of many disputes, the hard-fought agreement has the potential to provide both countries with a clean slate after the United States and NATO withdraw most of their troops in 2014.
For Hamid Karzai, the strategic partnership agreement is not only positive from a practical standpoint, but a significant political victory to burnish in front of his critics. Last year, Karzai convened a loya jirga (or conference) composed of tribal elders and religious leaders on the very same subject of building a long-lasting relationship with the United States. Karzai, who has literally retained his post as president in large part to the protection and financial assistance the international community has given to his government, won the elders’ support for the pitch in just a few days, which he quickly used as leverage to get the Americans to start working on a draft.
The negotiations were incredibly tedious, and at times broke down over the controversial issues of night raids by U.S. Special Forces and the holding of Afghan prisoners by coalition soldiers. Karzai has strongly argued that Afghans must be in total control of all detention facilities housing Afghan prisoners taken during coalition and Afghan operations – a request that the U.S. military long considered unrealistic given the country’s record of corruption and lackluster prison system. Yet after months of thinking it over, U.S. negotiators finally decided to give the Afghans what they wanted, on both counts. Those concessions cleared the way for the strategic partnership pact to be written and finalized before an important NATO summit meeting in Chicago this month, where international donors will decide how much to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces over the next few years.
Yet even with the agreement signed and initialed by the U.S. ambassador and the Afghan national security adviser, and now by Obama and Karzai during Obama’s visit, there are two important questions to be asked: how effective the deal is likely to be, and how strong the U.S.-Afghan relationship will become. Ultimately, it’s unclear exactly what role the United States will actually be filling after 2014.
Officials familiar with the agreement’s full content confess that the paper is short on details and inundated with vagaries. For instance, the amount of money Washington will put into Afghan reconstruction and economic development isn’t mentioned, nor is there a concrete proposal outlining how many U.S. troops will be allowed to stay inside Afghanistan after the 2014 drawdown. Whether any remaining U.S. forces will be subjected to Afghan domestic law is another question mark that could change the game entirely, just as the immunity issue bedeviled post-2011 negotiations between the Obama administration and Iraq. Leaving the nuts and bolts of the operation out of the negotiations was a useful tactic by the diplomats to fast-track the process without any major disagreement, but troop numbers and financial commitment could become sore spots in the future if not tackled adequately early on.
Symbolically, the strategic partnership document is a warning to the Taliban insurgency that they can no longer count on their current strategy of waiting out the coalition and retaking Kabul once the buffer of foreign troops leave. Pakistan, which has been hedging its bets by keeping close to the Taliban in anticipation of NATO leaving, may also have to rethink how its interests can be best served. Iran, always leery of a U.S. presence anywhere in the region, will view the partnership document as Afghan capitulation to the demands of a superpower. But what is certain is that none of the players in the conflict will change their decision making if valuable details about the U.S. presence, post-2014, are left ambiguous or subject to a review year after year.
Daniel R. DePetris is the Senior Associate Editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis.