The Day After
What will happen to Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave in 2014? It is only the Afghan people who can find a lasting solution to their problems and the Loya Jirga would be a useful step in that direction.
The Afghan Loya Jirga has finally approved the U.S.-Afghanistan bilateral security agreement (BSA) on November 24, paving way for long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan when the rest of the international troops will leave the landlocked country in 2014.
The agreement will now be presented to the Afghan parliament where the general mood is already supportive and it is likely that the agreement will be approved without any hiccups. This will be a relief for a vast majority of Afghans who see the post-withdrawal U.S. presence as a key to their country’s lasting peace and security.
However, while the Afghan Loya Jirga, attended by around 2500 representatives, gave President Hamid Karzai the green signal to go ahead with the security pact, a later statement of President Karzai created a new controversy about the future of the BSA.
Addressing the opening session of the Loya Jirga, President Karzai said that the agreement might have to wait to be signed until after Afghanistan's presidential elections. If Karzai stays true to his words, the BSA is not going to be signed till April 2014.
Reacting to Karzai’s surprising statement – surprising because it came at a time when the Loya Jirga was sit to approve the BSA – the White House said on November 22 that it is “imperative” that the Afghan authorities conclude the agreement with the United States before the end of December 2013.
“Failure to conclude the BSA by that point would make it impossible for the United States and our allies to plan for a presence (in Afghanistan) post-2014,” White House spokesperson told a news conference on November 22.
While it is unlikely that President Karzai will postpone the signing of the BSA when the Loya Jirga has already approved it, and the Afghan parliament is likely to follow suit, analysts believe the Afghan president is desperately trying to improve his highly flawed image with the common Afghans by
giving the impression that he is standing up to the Americans.
Known for his bluffs over the years, Karzai’s current move is also being seen as an almost futile effort to get leverage ahead of the 2014 presidential election and to get concessions for himself, his family and his favorite candidate.
Whatever Karzai’s motives are, the Afghans generally believe that U.S. presence will not only be a moral boost for the nascent Afghan Army and the police, which will be fighting the Taliban after the international forces’ withdrawal, but also keep the flow of international assistance for rebuilding efforts in the war-ravaged country.
In such a situation, it is most probable that the bilateral security agreement will be signed within the date set by the United States to ensure the U.S. and its allies prepare their plans for the next year.
“Though the terms of the security agreement are still not clear to us, if the two sides agreed upon, will send a direct message to Afghanistan’s neighbors alongside opening ways for continued international assistance for Afghanistan,” said Barmak Pajhwak, Senior Program Officer with the United States Institute of Peace.
He added that the most important step in Afghanistan’s transition period would be the upcoming presidential election and the peaceful handing over of power from one elected government to another.
Doubts are being expressed about the holding of the April 2014 presidential polls which comes ahead of the beginning of the international withdrawal and the key question is the credibility and legitimacy of the election process.
Serious questions were raised about the 2009 presidential election when the one time foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who was a runner-up in the elections, refused to accept the results.
Since the Afghan Constitution bars President Karzai from contesting the presidential election for a third term, 10 (now 11 confirmed) strong candidates, including the president’s brother Qayyum Karzai, are in the field this time. Prominent among them are Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Dr. Zalmai Rassoul and former jihadi leader Abdul Rasul Sayaf.
Almost everyone among these strong candidates supports the bilateral security agreement with the United States and believes that the nascent Afghan army will need both technical and material support from their international backers to guard their country against the Taliban and their affiliates running safe havens in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Apart from a moral boost for the Afghan security forces, the presence of U.S. troops will keep the window of assistance open and the world community, particularly the United States, will continue keeping Afghanistan under its radar.
A complete U.S. withdrawal will not only leave Afghanistan in total disarray but will also affect the security situation in Pakistan. Since the new Pakistani government has time and again voiced support for a stable, peaceful and prospering Afghanistan, it is most probable that Prime Minister Sharif’s team is clearly seeing the perils involved with the country’s past policies of socalled ‘strategic depth’ and interference in Afghanistan.
A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan means a signal to a civil war in which the Taliban are likely to emerge as one of the strongest parties. In that case, it is unlikely that the Pakistani Taliban, presently using the tribal areas as their stronghold, will not get a moral boost to expand their activities to the settled areas and major cities of Pakistan.
The security agreement, therefore, will not only keep Afghanistan from slipping into another civil war but will also help keep the Pakistani Taliban under control. Since Nawaz Sharif’s advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, has already visited Kabul in July 2013, while the prime minister himself is set to meet President Hamid Karzai in December in the Afghan capital, the signs are visible about a considerable improvement in relations between the two countries over the past few months.
According to Hamid Karzai’s aides, the president has privately admitted that he had fruitful contacts with Nawaz Sharif’s government which gives enough hope for a new beginning for the two neighbors.
At the same time, PM Nawaz Sharif’s realistic approach towards his country’s relations with the United States is also going to play a key role in ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.
Although sectarianism inAfghanistan has never been a serious issue affecting the security and stability of that country, the roots of ethnic divisions have been considerably strengthened over the past few decades. With an army not fully trained and equipped, and faced with a ruthless enemy (the Taliban), a complete withdrawal can bring the country face to face with another civil war as has been seen in Iraq over the past few years.
It is this reality that pushes the Afghans, both President Hamid Karzai and his opponents alike, to go for a bilateral security agreement (BSA) despite reservations at some levels.
“We worked very hard, as foreign minister, my colleagues in the National Security Council, the Ministry of Finance and others to take into consideration in this BSA the national interests and sovereignty of Afghanistan,” said presidential candidate and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.
A vast majority of Afghans believe only the BSA could keep the country united and safe from internal instability and foreign interference.