Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. The first peaceful, democratic transfer of power following decades of violence appears poised to occur after April’s presidential elections. NATO forces are already substantially reduced, with a complete withdrawal of combat forces set for the end of 2014. All Afghan socioeconomic indicators show vast improvement since 2001.
And yet, despite advances and while momentous political changes are unfolding, Washington’s relationship with President Hamid Karzai is at an all-time low.
Over the past year the most contentious issue, at least for the United States, has been Mr. Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA), which would establish the legal framework for a small number of US troops to remain in Afghanistan through 2024 providing technical assistance and support to Afghan security forces. While Karzai’s refusal is a frustration to US planning, there is wisdom in waiting for a new Afghan administration to engage this sensitive agreement.
The Afghans fought two wars with the British in the 19th century and one devastating war against the Soviet Union in the late 20th century to preserve their independence. Even among Karzai supporters, most Afghans find it difficult to see non-Afghan forces patrolling villages, blocking roads, or controlling airspace. Among villagers of the tribal south, where past wars have been most hotly contested, this intrusion is sharply felt.
Postponing final ratification of the BSA until a new Afghan administration is in place confers more legitimacy to both the agreement and to the next administration. It is worth noting all the major presidential contenders support the BSA and appreciate the importance of a constructive relationship with the US – both for the success of their tenure and for a stable, secure, and prosperous future.
Working with the Taliban
Al Qaeda is basically finished in Afghanistan. Right now, the important objectives are halting the conflict with the Taliban/insurgents and strengthening a legitimate, effective, and democratic government in Kabul. The Taliban leadership has long said they are waging an insurgency for two basic reasons: They want foreign forces out of the country, and they want a new administration in Kabul.
Both conditions are near to being realized. Meanwhile, all sides are tired of fighting and have expressed interest in negotiations.
An unsigned BSA allows Karzai flexibility, both the time and negotiating leverage, to pursue conditions that might bring the Taliban into a political process. Recent reports of Karzai in secret negotiations with the Taliban and meetings scheduled with the High Peace Council in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, show such efforts are being made.
Letting the next Afghan administration sign the BSA allows it to set its own terms regarding the two most significant and interrelated issues on the Afghan political scene: Kabul’s relationship with both the Taliban and US.
With an unsigned BSA the possibility remains for a modified agreement that engages the Taliban in discussions over the terms of a peace process. Perhaps a precisely defined US military presence and a carefully staged US military withdrawal can be exchanged for clearly ending insurgent activities.
Efforts should be made to give the Taliban a face-saving, limited, and legitimate voice in government processes. Over time, if the Taliban honor their promises, a BSA could include a process by which the presence of foreign troops slowly decreases in response to benchmarks of Taliban compliance.
The goal is to create a process through which the Taliban become political instead of insurgent actors, and 2014 is the time to test their intentions. Signing the BSA now locks an incoming Afghan administration into the terms of US military presence for the next decade, potentially limiting meaningful options in the peace process.
US must remain a partner
For foreign armies, Afghanistan has always been a quagmire. And most often Afghans reach agreements behind closed doors, in the absence of external pressure.
The US should remain a partner with power to wield substantial influence over those political processes and public programs that show promise, always able to withhold assistance from those people and processes detrimental to US and Afghan interests. This role will demand flexible planning, frequent patience, and, as this transition rapidly unfurls, increasing deference to Afghan processes.
James Weir is the director of Muslim Societies of Asia and the Pacific at the University of Hawaii and has many years of experience working in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. This piece includes contributions from Amir Ramin, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council in Kabul; Rahmatullah Amiri, a writer and researcher from Kabul; and Nadia Siddiqui, a writer and editor who has worked on Afghanistan programming at the International Center for Transitional Justice.