The Pulse

A Point of No Return for the U.S.-Afghan Relationship?

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The Pulse

A Point of No Return for the U.S.-Afghan Relationship?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has accused the U.S. of working with the Taliban. A diplomatic tailspin ensues.

That the U.S.-Afghan relationship suffers from a fundamental lack of trust and friendship has long been an open secret. But the relationship could now be veering towards a point of no return, at least based on indications earlier this week. During a nationally televised speech on Sunday, President Hamid Karzai made the bizarre allegation that the U.S. and Taliban were colluding to provoke fears that violence in the country will worsen if most coalition troops leave.

“The explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday showed that they [the Taliban] are at the service of America.” Karzai said. "They are trying to frighten us into thinking that if the foreigners are not in Afghanistan, we would be facing these sorts of incidents."

President Karzai was referring to two suicide bombings that happened on March 9 – one outside the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the other near a police checkpoint in eastern Khost province – which left 19 people dead.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. was quick to reject the allegations. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said a day later, “Any suggestion the United States is colluding with the Taliban is categorically false.” Carney sought to highlight the sacrifices made by the U.S. to drive home his point.

He added, “The United States has spent enormous blood and treasure for the past 12 years supporting the Afghan people and ensuring – in the effort to ensure stability and security in that country. The last thing we would do is support any kind of violence, particularly involving innocent civilians.”

Karzai’s suggestion comes at a sensitive time for ties between Kabul and Washington. It coincided with the visit of America’s new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, at a time when the United States has sought to talk up the advancements in Afghan security and society during the past decade as it prepares to withdraw its troops from the country in 2014.

Indeed, in January, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart touted the “progress” made in the country while announcing an accelerated military transition plan, which would see U.S. forces playing a support role by as early as spring this year.

To secure an honorable exit, Washington has vigorously pushed to conclude the fledgling peace talks between the Afghan government-appointed Afghan High Peace Council and the Taliban. To aid the talks, the Pakistani government, with encouragement from the United States, released around 18 junior to mid-level Taliban prisoners last November, followed by another 26 prisoners in January.

Yet, the contours of a crucial strategic partnership agreement between Washington and Kabul remain undefined. Over the next few months, the two sides are expected to finalize a deal that could determine how many American troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

However, progress has been elusive, impeded by bickering between the two partners. The deal is contingent on resolving Afghan concerns over sovereignty, including calls for an end to night raids and the handover of custody of detainees in Afghan jails; and the contentious U.S. demand for immunity to American troops from Afghan law.

Part of the problem lies in President Karzai’s standing in the U.S., where his credibility suffered a huge blow following reports of massive rigging in the 2009 Afghan elections. Although he has repeatedly stated his intention to exit the political scene when the country goes to the polls in 2014, many share concerns about the possibility that he will tamper with the electoral outcome, either directly or indirectly. America’s insistence on the need for wide-ranging electoral and political reforms has only soured ties with the Karzai government further.

Then there is the issue of military cooperation between the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Trust between foreign and Afghan forces has been greatly undermined by a slew of “insider attacks” on foreign forces involving Afghan troops or insurgents posing as members of the Afghan military.

The incendiary remarks by President Karzai will no doubt add to the bad blood between the two sides in recent weeks, which also includes a dispute over the stalled transfer of U.S.-controlled Bagram Prison to Afghan authorities and Karzai's order to expel U.S. special operations forces from Wardak and Logar provinces.

More worryingly, the accusation puts the prospect of a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement at stake; an agreement that would not only determine the extent of the residual force in Afghanistan after 2014, but indeed the country’s future security.

After all, without the firepower of ISAF forces and substantial U.S. assistance, the Afghan military will find it difficult to resist the Taliban. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Defense conceded as much, saying that only one of 23 Afghan army brigades was able to operate on its own. Moreover, Afghanistan is unlikely to have a functioning air force before 2017.

When all of this is considered, it is hard to imagine why President Karzai would make such a bizarre accusation, which could only alienate his foreign partners further.