Locking in at least another decade of U.S. military entanglement, the United States and Afghanistan signed a controversial Bilateral Security Agreement at a ceremony in Kabul on Tuesday.
The provisions of the pact will allow for U.S. training, funding, and arming of the Afghan military and keep thousands of U.S. troops beyond what President Obama has repeatedly called the "end of the war" later his year. A key part of the agreement also extends immunity to U.S. service members under Afghan law.
Critics charge that the deal allows the Obama administration to pay lip-service to ending an unpopular war while, in fact, paving the way for long-term occupation and dependency. "A country's sovereignty is very important," Laila Rashidie, member of Afghans United for Justice, told Common Dreams. "Thirteen years of U.S.-led military occupation continues to compromise this. A truly free Afghanistan would not depend on U.S. troops."
Signing the BSA was the first major act of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was inaugurated on Monday following a hotly contested election clouded by allegations of fraud. The U.S.-backed president clinched the security deal at a signing ceremony at Kabul's presidential palace on Tuesday, currying praise from the Obama administration, which had voiced frustration at outgoing President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign. The deal is set to go into effect in January 2015 and last until the year 2024.
The deal stipulates long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and access to numerous bases and installations in the country, including facilities located in Bagram, home to the notorious U.S. military prison. The pact does not detail the exact number of U.S. troops to remain, but Obama has previously stated he plans to cut U.S. troops down to 9,800 by the beginning of 2015, then cut that number by half at the end of next year, with further cuts slated for the end of 2016. As of earlier this year, there were approximately 50,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, 34,000 of which were American.
Peter Lems, Program Officer at the American Friends Service Committee, told Common Dreams that even if the U.S. sticks with Obama's timetable for troop reductions, of which there is no guarantee, the stated plan does not constitute a real end to the war.
"That's one of the biggest problems with the War on Terror since September 11: these wars don't end," said Lems. "We have this crazy situation where we have undeclared wars and, perhaps because of the nature of undeclared conflicts, it's easy to look at them as dissipating but never-ending."
The deal also allows the U.S. to pursue "counter-terrorism" missions as long as they "complement" those of the Afghan military and "authorizes United States government aircraft and civil aircraft that are operated by or exclusively for United States forces to enter, exit, overfly, land, take off, conduct aerial refueling, and move within the territory of Afghanistan." Critics warn that the stipulation is likely to allow the U.S. to continue its covert drone wars against the region, including neighboring Pakistan.
Under the agreement, the U.S. is to play a critical role in "advising, training, equipping, supporting, and sustaining" the Afghan military, as well as "developing intelligence sharing capabilities; strengthening Afghanistan’s Air Force capabilities; conducting combined military exercises." Many warn that "training" is in fact cover for holding onto bases and other geopolitical footholds.
According to Lems, this provision sets the conditions for long-term U.S. domination. "To have the U.S. fully fund that apparatus will lead to dependence, but also encourage Afghan officials to use force and violence the way the U.S. has," he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. service members are granted immunity under Afghan laws. The issue of immunity for U.S. troops has long been a point of contention for the Afghan people, who have faced a staggering civilian death toll, as well as a spate of high-profile massacres, including the 2012 Panjwai massacre, in which 16 Afghan civilians were gunned down and killed and 6 more wounded by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
The approval of the deal, which will keep U.S. aid dollars flowing, was championed by Ghani as "helpful for Afghan stability and prosperity and for the stability of region and that of the world."
But critics counter that this is simply an example of how the U.S. uses militarized aid as a tool for dominating poor countries.
"There already is long-term dependency," said a human rights analyst who visits Afghanistan regularly and requested anonymity to protect the security of NGOs working on the ground. "The Afghan army would collapse overnight if the U.S. pulled its funding. The Afghan sees signing this agreement as a key piece to keeping aid going."
"A country's instability is caused by foreign interference and intervention," said Rashidie.
The Bilateral Security Agreement was a condition for NATO's status of forces agreement, signed later on Tuesday, which extends similar privileges to thousands of foreign troops now slated to remain in Afghanistan past the end of this year.