Reporting Afghanistan

John Wendle

A New U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Should the Taliban Be Afraid?

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After many months of wrangling and negotiations between Washington and Kabul, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta initialed the draft of a strategic partnership agreement that promises American support for Afghanistan for 10 years following the planned 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. However, like many recent agreements between the two countries, observers agree that although the document is being widely heralded, it will have little real impact and will remain a tool in a political shadow play.

“Our goal is an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall told TIME. “We believe this agreement supports that goal.” He added that, “Both President Barack Obama and [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai have expressed their desire to have an agreement ready to sign before the NATO summit in Chicago [which begins May 15].” Sundwall tells TIME that the document will undergo an interagency review, a consultation with Congress as appropriate and a final review by the president. “Once these internal processes are complete, we expect to be in a position to sign the agreement,” Sundwall says, though he could not comment on details of the agreement.

Because of the lack of details or teeth, observers say the draft has little substance. “It’s an ineffectual PR move. They’re trying to have it both ways — to have their cake and eat it too,” a foreign observer says. “There seems to be some great optimism that this will convince other countries to pony up the money and take on more of the financial burden from the U.S. [to support the Afghan government and military]. But other countries will not be keen to whip out their checkbooks when the U.S. doesn’t talk about exact financial commitments.”

A U.S. official tells TIME that the signing “locks in” the text for now, but “the final text is pending the internal review processes of both countries.” The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the deal “will provide the general framework governing our bilateral relationship with the government and people of Afghanistan going forward.” He added that, “once agreed, specifics that go beyond the scope of the framework will need to be discussed and addressed in future memorandum of understanding, agreements or other arrangements as appropriate.”

Even with no specifics, Afghan National Security Adviser Spanta announced that, “The document finalized [on Sunday] provides a strong foundation for the security of Afghanistan, the region and the world and is a document for the development of the region.” Western diplomats have speculated that a more detailed security agreement would possibly come sometime next year, once European nations make it clear how much they can give to fund Afghan national security forces.

Still, the very presence of a draft agreement is important to the goals of both the U.S. and Afghan governments. The U.S. needs to show the American people it is working on an exit strategy while Kabul needs to reassure international donors there is a future in Afghanistan and the Afghan people that they will not be left to fend for themselves against the Taliban’s expected attempt to take over after the 2014 pull out. The agreement could also be seen as a possible application of pressure against the Taliban, since many have speculated that they will wait for a U.S. withdrawal before staging a power-grab.

Also, it is remarkable that any sort of agreement has been reached at all after a year when relations between the two countries have been strained by U.S. troops mugging with the body parts of suicide bombers, urinating on the corpses of dead insurgents, burning Korans and massacring civilians coupled with Afghan troops killing their foreign mentors. Even in light of these hurdles, the draft comes on the heels of further movement in moving toward a post-U.S. Afghanistan, including memoranda of understanding for the handover of control of night raids to Afghan forces and a detention facility.

Read more about the handover of night raids at Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: What the End of U.S. Night Raids Means for Afghanistan about the Koran burning riots at The Koran-Burning Riots: Can U.S. and Afghan Troops Work Together? and the massacre in Panjwai, Kandahar at Timing and Location of an Afghan Massacre Threatens U.S. Strategy

Yet, even this momentum is limited. Because the U.S. Congress must vote on yearly budgets, there is no way for lump sums of cash to be allotted in advance to the Afghan government to run its military and ministries — even within the framework of this strategic partnership agreement. Though Karzai called for just that last week — asking the U.S. to make a written commitment to pay a minimum of $2 billion to support the Afghan military. A $2.7 billion a year price tag has also been discussed. It is round figures like these that Western leaders will try to hash out at the Chicago NATO summit. It is estimated that it will cost about $4 billion a year to support the 352,000 strong national army and national police — of which the Afghan government will contribute around $500 million a year.

And while these figures are orders of magnitude smaller than the $110 billion to $120 billion the Congressional Research Service says the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan every year since the troop surge began in 2010, no specific amounts have been set by Sunday’s draft signing — which makes many observers wonder at the purpose of such an announcement. “My sense is that it will soon become clear where the U.S. stands and that this is quite a noncommittal agreement,” says long-time Afghanistan observer and expert Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “This agreement won’t convince the Taliban or anyone else that there’s going to be solid and sustained U.S. support, or clarify what that support will be. It is quite clear that the U.S. and other countries are quite conflicted and this agreement does nothing to clarify what their stance is.”

The foreign observer amplified this analysis, saying, “The agreement coming through doesn’t surprise me. The Bagram [detention facility] and night raids memoranda of understanding were where Karzai got almost everything he wanted and the U.S. gave and gave. This is the agreement where the U.S. gave nothing, in spite of Karzai’s statements a few weeks ago about how much he wanted specific figures — which it sounds like he got none of.” The source added that, “In terms of what this agreement says about the U.S.’s commitment to continuing financial support, it doesn’t give us any information. It leaves the U.S. free to provide a lot of support, or very little, as it sees fit, year-by-year. Basically, it’s an agreement to be friends. And without any other details, does it send a clear message to Pakistan and Iran? Does it send a clear message to the Taliban? Does it send a clear message to the U.S.’s partner nations? I don’t think so. And without these details there’s no difference in the relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan today than there was yesterday.”

Read more about past negotiations at A U.S. Peace with the Taliban? Don’t Hold Your Breath

This story originally appeared in TIME at A New U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Should the Taliban Be Afraid?

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