Washington also has displayed further commitment to Afghanistan when in late November President Obama in a policy shift has decided to extend the combat role of U.S. forces in Afghanistan into 2015, allowing troops to keep fighting the Taliban and other militant groups that threaten American soldiers or the Afghan government.
The signing of the long-delayed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the United Sates and Afghanistan would also ensure that the latter does not fall into total chaos yet again once the international coalition forces withdraw from the country.
The BSA, which was finalized by Washington and Kabul after years of interlocutions, could not be put into practice due to the refusal of outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai to sign it. Karzai left it to the incoming president to approve or reject the agreement. When the new president, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, took the oath of office he did not waste time in ratifying the BSA.
The terms of the BSA provide for the continued presence of around 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the cut-off date of December 31, 2014, for the withdrawal of all international, mostly American, combat forces from Afghanistan. The security agreement also acknowledges the U.S. legal jurisdiction over its troops and Defense Department civilians, while contractors would be subject to the Afghan judicial process. The pact stipulates that the US counterterrorism operations will take place in coordination with the Afghans, with the Afghan forces in the lead. The agreement also notes that US troops will not conduct combat operations unless they are ’mutually agreed to’ by the U.S. and the Afghans. The BSA also authorizes the U.S. to have a string of air bases across Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop the new policy of President Obama to extend the combat role of US forces in Afghanistan contravenes the provision of the BSA. However, it was necessary. Because without a role in fighting especially in providing cover to Afghan military, US forces presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, would be meaningless. So this is a rational decision to be made in the circumstances.
President Ghani took no time to sign the BSA after coming to power. This demonstrates that he has assumed a pro-Washington posture from the very outset. The massive challenges that Dr. Ghani has to deal
with, including the Afghan Taliban insurgency, political instability and shattered economy, necessitate Kabul’s continued reliance on the U.S., the most resourceful country of the world. Washington facilitated Ghani’s efforts to become president by convincing his main rival Abduallah Abdullah to give up his protest over the alleged fraud in the presidential elections. In return, Abdullah was given the position of chief executive officer.
Since a legal arrangement was necessary for Washington to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan, it was perturbed by the delay and wanted to get the BSA signed at the earliest. President Barack Obama had announced in 2012 that the U.S. would withdraw all its combat troops from Afghanistan by December 31, 2014. Only a mutual security agreement could enable the U.S. to keep a sizable number of its troops in Afghanistan.
The BSA will be instrumental in protecting the political and constitutional edifice of Afghanistan from crumbling down in the face of an Afghan Taliban insurgency. In such a situation, the BSA will serve as an umbrella for state institutions to have the required strength. For instance, it will help the Afghan National Security Forces ( ANSF) to hold their own against the Taliban’s armed resistance. Without the ANSF developing the capacity to provide security to the Afghan state, its institutions and its citizens, the insurgency could not be quashed. At the same time, there could be no meaningful rehabilitation, reconstruction and development process without the ANSF having the required strength.
Unfortunately, the ANSF has not been able to develop the capacity to protect Afghanistan and its institutions from internal threats let alone external ones. This is despite the fact that in comparison to the number of Afghan Taliban fighters, whose strength cannot be more than 30,000 to 40,000, the number of ANSF personnel is nearly 0.35 million. Moreover, the ANSF is heavily armed and trained by the U.S. and international forces.
Although the BSA does not have a direct role in ensuring political stability in Afghanistan, it could have a very strong indirect bearing on the political situation. The continued presence of US forces might compel the Afghan Taliban to give second thoughts to what they have been rejecting constantly – joining the political process. The Afghan Taliban have been arguing since long that they will talk to the Afghan authorities once all the international forces leave Afghanistan. Although this has not happened, war weariness has gripped the Taliban. Knowing well the level of commitment within the ranks of the ANSF – evident from the alarming dropout rate of their personnel – the Taliban were hoping for an all-out onslaught on the government forces once the international forces pull out. Such an offensive on some parts of the ANSF could have lacerated it. Although the calculations of the Taliban were not realistic to begin with, now with around 10,000 U.S. troops staying back in Afghanistan, they cannot even think of turning the tables on the Afghan state forces.
Fatigued with war weariness, the Taliban are likely to realize that the ANSF could not be defeated in the presence of U.S. forces, hence they might join the political process. However, if such a possibility arises, the Taliban may try to ensure the implementation of some of their key demands such as enforcement of Shariah in Afghanistan. To what extent the Afghan government will concede to their demands depends on the strength of the Afghan Taliban.
Against this backdrop, Afghanistan must use the BSA with the U.S. to build the capacity of its military and police personnel so that it no longer requires the assistance of foreign forces for the protection of its state institutions and processes. Kabul must be cognizant of the fact that the presence of U.S. forces and bases cannot be interminable. Afghanistan – or for that matter Hamid Karzai, who was the head of state since the ouster of the Taliban – failed to put things on the right track despite the presence of thousands of international troops and injections of billions of dollars in aid.
However, here the question arises that would Afghanistan utilize the relative stability offered by the BSA and the extension of combat role of US forces beyond 2014 to build its key state institutions and enhance their capacity? This depends on the Afghan leadership. Fortunately, for the first time in many decades Afghanistan has a genuine and educated head of state. Dr. Ghani holds Ph.D in economics and is said to have all what it takes to establish a modern economy in Afghanistan. Modernization and strength of Afghan economy could be instrumental in building the capacity of other state institutions. At the same time President Ghani would also have to build the capacity of the ANSF and the U.S. forces continued presence in Afghanistan could be used to attain the objective. But for this President Ghani has to choose his ministers and advisers very carefully.
Instead of cleansing the state institutions of rampant corruption, sloth and mismanagement when he was in power, Karzai and his team have been blaming foreign elements, particularly Pakistan, for Afghanistan’s miseries to absolve themselves of any responsibility. The oft-repeated argument and charge in this regard is that Islamabad provides support to the Afghan Taliban. When negotiations on the security agreement had begun, Karzai had demanded a full-fledged defense treaty with the U.S. and the latter’s readiness to respond militarily to “aggression” by other nations, specifically Pakistan. In fact, Karzai wanted the U.S. forces to attack Pakistani territory and people.
On one point, when the negotiations on the BSA had hit snags, Karzai’s spokesman Aimal Faizi had said: “We believe that when terrorists are sent to commit suicide attacks here, that is also aggression. We are a strategic partner of the U.S. and we must be protected against foreign aggression. For us and for the U.S., that’s the conflicting point. We are not of the same opinion and we need clarity from the U.S. side.” However, Washington refused to include any Pakistan-specific clause in the BSA.
Under Dr. Ghani’s educated leadership one expects that Kabul will mend its old ways. The challenges for Afghanistan in the post-international forces withdrawal period are massive. That could be met with acumen, diplomacy and tact instead of blame game. The BSA, and the relative stability it offers, is a rare opportunity for Afghanistan to build its key institutions and their capacity. Otherwise the country is likely to face total chaos.