By Javid Ahmad -
For months, Washington and Kabul have been working towards a bilateral security agreement to set a framework for a lighter U.S. military contingent to remain in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends in 2014. President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington next week may provide him and President Obama an opportunity to jointly announce the size and precise role of the follow-on force, expected to be between 6,000 and 20,000 troops. But as the two presidents meet, there are a number of important and contentious issues that are likely to dominate discussions.
Prominent among them is reaching an agreement on legal immunity for U.S. forces from prosecution in local courts, especially if Afghan laws are violated. While exemption from local laws is a standard issue wherever American forces are deployed, President Karzai has opposed granting immunity to U.S. forces unless Washington fulfills some Afghan conditions. These conditions include: respect for Afghan laws and the people; the closure of all U.S.-run detention centers and handover of detainees; ceding control of Afghan airspace to the Afghan government; and training Afghan security forces. U.S. officials are skeptical that any premature release of detainees could be dangerous and also raises the risk of many rejoining the insurgency. However, resolving Afghan disparities with the United States regarding rules for indefinitely holding suspected insurgents without trial is fundamental for the Afghan government as it asserts its sovereignty. Kabul reinforced its point this week by releasing over 80 detainees from custody.
Another important issue may be the number of U.S. military bases the residual forces will need in Afghanistan. Washington has voiced its intentions not to seek permanent bases in Afghanistan and is already handing over 300 bases and outposts to Afghan forces. Nonetheless, both countries still need to reach an agreement on the number of bases the residual forces will occupy, their locations and precise roles, the legal jurisdiction over these bases, and just as importantly, whether any of these bases will be shared with the Afghan forces. Equally important is to determine whether U.S. forces will use the bases to operate armed drones or establish separate drone ground control stations for counterterrorism purposes in Afghanistan.
Regardless of how these issues are ironed out, many Afghans believe that while more than being key venues for upholding security inside Afghanistan, Washington will use its military bases to boost its own interests and monitor regional countries. However, while U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 has already made a number of regional countries uneasy, the Afghan government will need to do a better job at juggling competing priorities in order to ensure that U.S. forces’ presence does not upset its relations with neighboring countries.
Many compare the U.S.-Afghan security deal discussions with similar U.S. negotiations with Iraq last year that failed and ended American military presence. But despite intractable resistance of the Iraqi government and its people, the situation in Iraq was significantly different than it is in Afghanistan today. At present, the Afghan government is confronted by an uncertain future beyond 2014, aggravated further by rankling insurgency and a resilient enemy, which not only challenges Kabul’s survival on a daily basis but also has undermined its maneuvering power. As well, unlike Iraq that counted on its oil revenue, the Afghan government is not in a position to sustain itself and its nascent security forces without an open-ended commitment in American aid. Hence, Kabul will most likely water down many of its preconditions and ultimately grant U.S. forces legal immunity as part of the security pact.
Nevertheless, President Karzai should make up for it by seeking continued U.S. support for sustenance of Afghan forces to remain operational and effective in combat. As U.S. forces shift away from combat missions, there must also be a corresponding commitment to bolstering Afghan forces. A robust and well-trained security force equipped with necessary weaponry and backed by U.S. forces is essential not only for Afghanistan’s sovereignty but its survival after 2014. Most crucially, when the two presidents meet, they must also ensure that if the U.S. security mission after 2014 is closely focused on counterterrorism operations, any continuing U.S. training and advising to Afghan forces will be sternly undermined and could derail the ability of Afghan forces.
The United States and Afghanistan are codependent and much is at stake unless such an agreement is finalized. While Washington sees its own national security priorities in Afghanistan, Kabul needs a security partnership with Washington to ensure its long-term security and assistance to Afghan security forces. As President Obama and President Karzai meet to discuss a shared vision for Afghanistan beyond 2014, they should ensure that the months-long negotiations between Washington and Kabul over important, but still relatively marginal issues, do not hamper reaching a pact that best serves the interests of both countries.
Javid Ahmad, a founding member of Afghan Analytica, is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The views reflected here are his own.