Despite strong objections from President Hamid Karzai, the United States insists that Afghanistan must sign, as written, a Bilateral Security Agreement that sets the framework for another decade of US occupation of that war-torn nation. According to the terms of the proposed accord, the United States will be able to maintain up to nine military bases, along with 8,000–12,000 troops (and a smaller contingent of European and other forces), through 2024. Over Afghan opposition, the agreement states that US troops will not be subject to Afghan law for criminal acts—even war crimes. Among the sensible points raised at the eleventh hour by Karzai: that US forces be prohibited from conducting night raids of Afghan homes and that Washington start peace talks between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban.
A gathering of more than 2,500 Afghan tribal leaders, clerics and national and provincial officials endorsed the accord after a four-day loya jirga, or council, convened by Karzai. But the president himself balked, saying he would sign it only after further negotiation, and perhaps not until after next April’s presidential election—which, Washington says, would be far too late. That dispute, like many others involving Karzai over the past decade, will probably be resolved in America’s favor because Washington holds all the cards. “We can continue to disagree, but at the end of the day, we are the ones who have the troops,” said a US official. So a war that President Obama has repeatedly said is “winding down” may go on for another ten years.
There are crucial questions Obama has failed to address: If the more than 100,000 US troops that occupied Afghanistan after his escalations of 2009 failed to neutralize the Taliban and its allies, how will a far smaller US contingent accomplish that task? How will the Afghan security forces, which have already absorbed $54 billion in US aid since 2002, gain enough strength with another decade of American cash infusions of up to $6 billion a year? Perhaps most important: Where is the US diplomatic strategy to secure an accord between the Afghan government, non-Taliban opposition forces and the Taliban itself?
In fact, diplomacy—especially involving Pakistan, which supports the Taliban; India, which backs the non-Pashtun elements of the old anti-Taliban Northern Alliance; and Iran—is the only way to end the war. Recently the White House learned how effective diplomacy can be in seemingly intractable conflicts. First, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry veered away from airstrikes against Syria, instead making a deal with Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons and move toward a Geneva peace conference. Then, ignoring protests from hawks, neoconservatives and many members of Congress, Obama and Kerry reached a historic interim accord with Iran on its nuclear program. Despite off-again, on-again efforts to talk with the Taliban, to Karzai’s frustration, the White House hasn’t pursued a political solution in Afghanistan with the same vigor.
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In the meantime, the bilateral agreement could fall apart. A similar effort to establish a security accord with Iraq did collapse, leading to the withdrawal of all US troops. Part of the reason for that failure was the refusal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iraq’s Parliament to agree to some of the same provisions that Karzai finds troubling, including legal immunity for foreign troops. But unlike Iraq, which has vast oil resources, Afghanistan is utterly dependent on foreign aid. Twelve years after the start of the war, Afghanistan is still a basket case, severely limiting Karzai’s ability to follow Maliki’s example. Karzai has spent years walking a political tightrope, objecting to night raids by US Special Forces, assailing American airstrikes that have killed many civilians—once even threatening to join the Taliban himself. Indeed, in his speeches to the loya jirga, Karzai stressed that civilian casualties are an explosive issue. He’s right; in October, on the twelfth anniversary of the war, a special issue of The Nation was devoted to a detailed report on civilians killed by US and allied forces in Afghanistan since 2001. It included a comprehensive, interactive online database highlighting hundreds of incidents, as well as articles exposing the failure of the Pentagon to institutionalize lessons learned about targeting of civilians and the ways civilian casualties help fuel the insurgency.
As shown by popular support in the United States for the diplomatic deals involving Syria and Iran, an exhausted American electorate has no appetite for war. In Congress, the Progressive Caucus and other antiwar members have sharply criticized the proposed Afghan pact. “The possibility of a military presence into 2024 is unacceptable,” said Representative Barbara Lee. “There is no military solution in Afghanistan. After thirteen years and more than $778 billion invested in an unstable country and the corrupt Karzai government, it’s time to bring our troops and tax dollars home.”
Lee and others, including Senator Jeff Merkley, are trying to mobilize antiwar sentiment to force an up-or-down vote on the Afghan agreement. Americans concerned about endless war in Central Asia ought to let members of Congress and the White House know that what’s working with Syria and Iran ought to work for Afghanistan, too.