A troubling transition in Afghanistan

By the end of this year, the United States and its NATO partners intend to reduce their military involvement in Afghanistan, with Afghan forces taking over security. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is preparing for presidential and provincial elections in April.

American troops remaining after 2014 would train Afghan forces under a U.S.-Afghanistan security accord, known as the Bilateral Security Accord. While the agreement was negotiated, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, despite significant domestic support for the document, has refused to sign it until the additional conditions he has set are met. Fearing instability after 2014, some ethnic and political factions are rearming in case the international drawdown leads to a major Taliban push to retake power.

The residual U.S.-NATO force would also remain in Afghanistan under a separate Status of Forces Agreement between Afghanistan and NATO dependent on Karzai’s signing the BSA and dubbed the Resolute Support Mission. Its function would be to continue to train and assist the Afghan National Security Forces. However, the residual force would also conduct operations against high-value targets such as Al-Qaeda members. It is intended to ensure stability until the Afghans can provide entirely for their own security.

Karzai’s refusal to sign is hindering planning for a post-2014 troop presence. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, the Afghan president stated that Al-Qaeda was “more a myth than a reality” and that the majority of American prisoners in Afghanistan were innocent. The gradual change in Karzai’s behavior is unusual for someone who had previously relied heavily on American support.

Some U.S.-allied countries appear to be growing impatient with the situation. European governments in particular have been under pressure from their publics and parliaments to end or reduce their military involvement in Afghanistan. The Netherlands and Canada have ended their combat missions, although they continue to provide 500 and 950 trainers, respectively, for the Afghan security forces.

At the same time, Germany announced last April that it would keep 600-800 forces in Afghanistan after 2014, mostly in the northern sector where it now leads the international contingent. In June of last year, Italy said it would contribute up to 800 troops. Georgia has committed about 750 troops, Australia 450 and Romania 250. Turkey has said it would continue its leadership role in the Kabul area beyond 2014.

NATO has also reportedly decided that in the post-2014 period, its trainers would deploy to all parts of Afghanistan, including the capital, Kabul. Exact force contributions are expected to be announced after a NATO conference scheduled to be held next month.

If the Resolute Support Mission is not implemented, prospects for stability in Afghanistan will be poor. The Obama administration has asserted that further delays in signing the BSA risks embroiling negotiations in the Afghan presidential campaign and constraining U.S. efforts to prepare for the post-2014 NATO presence.

One of the sticking points is Karzai’s refusal to grant immunity from prosecution to members of the American military. The Obama administration has described the issue as nonnegotiable if U.S. forces are to remain in Afghanistan. The question of legal immunities was placed before the Afghan National Assembly and a special Loya Jirga – a traditional Afghan assembly composed of about 2,500 notables convened to consider major issues. However, the Loya Jirga, which met last November, authorized Karzai to sign the agreement.

Further complicating matters is that a number of incidents continue to set back U.S.-Karzai relations. Security operations in which U.S. forces have participated continue to result in Afghan civilian deaths. The Afghans are unhappy with raids on homes, particularly night raids, which ignore cultural sensitivities. And in early January, Karzai ordered the release of 72 of 88 high-value detainees whom the United States had urged be put on trial. The Afghan president said there was insufficient evidence to try them. However, some observers believe his move was an effort to engage the Taliban in new negotiations.

These problems underline the continued inability to resolve several issues that have plagued the American relationship with Karzai for several years. For example, the issue of U.S. night raids was thought to have been settled in April 2012, when the United States agreed to give Afghans more control over such operations, including requiring an Afghan court warrant to hold any captives for more than 48 hours.

Afghanistan-Pakistan relations also continue to fluctuate. Pakistan is considered the country most crucial to Afghanistan’s future. The ongoing activities and movement of militants across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a real threat to both countries after 2014. Yet despite this shared interest, the countries have engaged in frequent border clashes, a product of the differences over their disputed perimeter region.

Karzai is playing both sides of the fence. After enjoying a decade in power and receiving billions of dollars in aid from the U.S., he is now opposing it over basic issues relating to the Western military presence. The president appears to be moving to assert Afghanistan’s autonomy while also, perhaps dangerously, seeking to accommodate the Taliban, which remains a rural force with which to be reckoned.

Haroon Mustafa Janjua is a freelance writer for The Daily Times in Pakistan and an independent researcher. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @JanjuaHaroon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 11, 2014, on page 7.




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