The situation of Afghanistan is entering another turning point. After years of debate on the bilateral security agreement between the US and Afghanistan, its status hangs in limbo. When all appeared set and done, all of a sudden, President Karzai declared the accord would not be signed until the election next year in April.
In the last couple of weeks and months, a series of high-level US officials have visited Afghanistan to understand the motive behind Karzai’s turnaround and to convey the dire consequences of this move. The first one to visit and to tackle this was secretary of State John Kerry, followed by the National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and the latest one being Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Reportedly, Hagel met with the Afghanistan’s Defense Minister Bismillah Khan and did not see any use in meeting Karzai. On the other hand, Karzai headed to Iran on Sunday while Hagel travelled to Pakistan on Monday.
Afghan President is questioning why there is such a hurry to finalize the accord and meanwhile the Americans are trying to ascertain what is behind the surprise move to delay. There are no clear-cut answers to both questions. Since the decision to postpone, Karzai has made several puzzling comments. In one of these statements, he demanded NATO should secure Afghanistan before he would sign the agreement. Subsequently, he said the Americans should initiate meaningful talks with the Taliban. Both these remarks raised further inquiries
With the first comment, was Karzai implying the NATO troops have failed to secure Afghanistan, and therefore, he was questioning the efficacy of foreign troops? The second comment is even more distressing; was he suggesting the reconciliation process is not Afghan owned and Afghan led, and others may be attempting to hinder reaching a political solution? Nonetheless, the resistance demonstrated by Karzai has won him rare Taliban praise.
Apparently, Karzai is seriously concerned about protecting the sovereignty of Afghanistan and to settle the issue of night raids, searches of Afghan homes, along with civilian causalities that have continued despite strong condemnation. In spite of the opposition, the operations have persisted and so have the causalities, even after NATO and American authorities apologized and promised on several occasions to prevent the recurrence. Usually there is discrepancy on what may have transpired during an incident, with local Afghan officials claiming civilian casualties while NATO insisting that militants had been targeted and eliminated.
The continuation of the raids and casualties raise and reinforce the perceptions that Karzai is either a puppet or his criticism is merely meant as rhetoric. This also complicates his government’s role in the reconciliation process as Taliban refuse to take to it seriously.
The above concerns are not much different than those being raised on the other side of the border in Pakistan. There, it involves the contentious issue of drone strikes and state sovereignty. The associated matter of civilian deaths caused by drone strikes in FATA has remained controversial and has consistently strained ties between US and Pakistan.
While the government of Pakistan diplomatically condemns the strikes, it is widely believed to privately condone them. After the recent strike in which TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed, several political parties there accused the US of sabotaging the nascent peace talks between TTP and Pakistan. The fissures over civilian casualties have now escalated to such an extent that Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf, Jamatey Islami, and Awami Muslim League have decided to block the NATO supply lines until the drone strikes cease.
Moreover, the issue has also put the Pakistan Pakistan Muslim League-N led federal government in a bind. Like the past governments, PML-N is believed to be continuing the policy of publicly criticizing the strikes while privately supporting them.
Karzai may have learned a lesson from the politics of Pakistan and Imran Khan; criticizing the controversial NATO/US tactics leads to rise in domestic popularity. Furthermore, this may also lead to decrease in Taliban’s intransigence in talking to Karzai. The strategy will help gain him respectability and while he cannot run in the upcoming elections himself, this will certainly grow his clout.
Consequences for US/NATO
Then comes the part about the consequences of this maneuver for NATO and US. Both have claimed the security deal with Afghanistan has to be signed ‘now or never’ for planning purposes. At the same time, US has threatened with a complete withdrawal if Afghan’s do not certify the agreement soon. However, realistically implementation of zero option may not be possible.
The future NATO and US strategy premises on building small bases in the Middle East, including South and Central Asia. This model is similar to the one adopted in the aftermath of World War II in places like Japan, South Korea and (West) Germany. Speaking at the Manama Security Dialogue on December 7th, William Hague stated: “Our stronger emphasis on the Gulf is part of our wider foreign policy in which we are building up and expanding Britain’s global presence.”
Before arriving in Afghanistan, Chuck Hagel also attended the Manama Dialogue, where he commented: “As America comes out of its longest war, the U.S. military is building new strategic agility. We’re building that new strategic agility in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.”
He went on to add, “As we have withdrawn US forces from Iraq, are drawing down our forces in Afghanistan, and rebalancing toward the Asia Pacific, we have honored our commitment to Gulf security by enhancing our military capabilities in the region.”
It is due to these reasons, that despite a thaw in ties with the West, Iran has maintained a strong opposition to NATO presence in Afghanistan. The country has repeated its opposition a number of times in the last week, even as the debate continues in the West on easing of sanctions over Iran. Neither Iran nor the West wants to let go of their leverages prematurely.
The cockpit of Afghanistan is essential and ‘the zero option’ is very difficult to implement in reality. Karzai knows this very well. Now, the question is what does he really want by gaining credibility – perhaps the very aim Imran Khan is positioning himself for.