Time to Get Serious
What lies ahead for Afghanistan in the upcoming NATO Summit?
After months of negotiations, the United States and Afghanistan finally agreed on what is termed as the ‘Enduring Partnership Agreement,’ on April 22 thus removing at least one of the uncertainties surrounding the troubled relationship of the two governments ahead of the two-day Chicago Summit, scheduled to begin on May 20.
Earlier, Afghan President, Hamid Karzai had urged upon the United States to present a written commitment of paying two billion US dollars to support the Afghan security forces for a decade following the scheduled withdrawal in 2014. Suspicions existed as authorization and appropriation of that amount lies in the jurisdiction of the US Congress and cannot be committed by the executive.
However, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s statement in Brussels on April 18 pledging support for Afghanistan after 2014 perhaps encouraged the Afghan negotiators, led by former foreign minister, Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta to finalize the draft of the ‘Enduring Partnership Agreement.’
Now eyes are fixed on the Chicago Summit where over 50 heads of states are meeting to review the progress on the goals laid out during the Lisbon meeting last year. The key area of focus will be the 2014 withdrawal and the pledges of financial support for the Afghan government. This will include both civilian and military assistance.
Before the finalization of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the handing over of authority of detention centers to Afghans and the lead role for Afghan security forces in night raids were the major roadblocks. Both hurdles were removed after the signing of two separate agreements between the US and Afghan negotiators, to the satisfaction of the latter.
Now that the two countries will have a somewhat smooth sailing towards May 20, the key question is how big of a role is the Summit going to play in bringing an end to the decade-long war and ensuring stability in Afghanistan and the region.
The United States would be fully justified in informing its NATO allies and the Afghans that the back of alQaeda has been broken and its leadership is no longer able to organize wellcoordinated attacks against the West as they were able to before 9/11. However, there will be much less to say the same about the Taliban and its affiliates, such as the Haqqani Network.
The well-coordinated attacks in Kabul, Jalalabad and Gardez on April 15 and the ensuing fight in the central capital of Kabul that lasted for several hours, leaves little room for optimism in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the quick and very much organized reaction from the Afghan security forces, the message conveyed by the perpetrators of the attacks was loud and clear: We are very much alive and can disrupt security any time we like.
The second important aspect is the strength and training of the Afghan security forces after 2014. Although the United States is expected to pledge around $2.5 billion a year, NATO partners are yet to present a concrete plan of development in the civilian sector as well as support for the Afghan security forces whose number would be reduced to a mere 230,000.
There is nothing clear about the not-so-secret talks between the United States and the Taliban representatives. Even if it is believed that the two sides are still in contact, it is not clear that the Taliban would accept the Strategic Partnership Agreement under which the United States is likely to keep its Special Forces at some key locations in Afghanistan. One of the foremost conditions from Taliban for any peace settlement is the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Would they accept the presence of US troops is anybody’s guess?
The presence of US Special Forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to support the Afghan security forces is an assurance for the Afghans that the United States is not abandoning the country this time as it did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. However, it is equally important to gauge how Afghanistan’s neighbors will view the long-term US presence in the region.
To some diplomatic sources, the US troops would be stationed in the western province of Herat (bordering Iran), the southern province of Kandahar (bordering Pakistan) and the central capital of Kabul. Since the US-Pakistan relationship is currently undergoing a diplomatic deadlock and Iran already has strained relations with the United States, the two neighbors would certainly come out with reservations which might affect their relations with Afghanistan.
Neither Pakistan nor Russia has signaled joining the Chicago Summit, as these lines are written, which is already a pointer to their reserva- tions about the future of Afghanistan. The only country that will be happy with the long-term US presence in Afghanistan is India, which has invested billions of dollars and is planning to further strengthen its strategic partnership as well as its people-to-people contacts with the Afghans.
Another important point about the future of Afghanistan is the question of political stability in the country. The next presidential elections are scheduled to be held in 2014. Since Hamid Karzai will be completing his second term the same year, and under the Afghan Constitution, he cannot stand for a third term in office, it is unclear as to who will be the next president of Afghanistan.
Looking at the level of political awareness and the still dominant role played by tribalism, it is unlikely that the majority ethnic Pashtuns would agree on a person other than a Pashtun even though elected through the use of vote. One such expected candidate might be former foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who is an ethnic Tajik.
It may or may not be a deliberate act on the part of Hamid Karzai but there is no proper candidate for the Afghan presidency among ethnic Pashtuns in 2014. This vacuum may cause political instability in the system that can hardly be called stable and the leadership question may spark tribal and ethnic conflict, which will only benefit the Taliban and other destabilizing forces in the region.