Focusing on the End Game in Afghanistan

by Caroline Wadhams on February 4, 2014

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A long-term, small U.S. and NATO-ISAF military presence in Afghanistan post-2014 is in the interest of Afghanistan, the region, and the United States and requires a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).  This force would provide advice, training, intelligence and enabling support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), monitor the funds required to sustain the ANSF, and enhance U.S. counterterrorism capabilities.  It would also send signals to the Afghan public and the region of a long-term U.S. commitment and potentially deter counterproductive hedging behavior.

Yet the current climate in Afghanistan suggests that such an agreement will most likely not materialize in the near future.  The United States is embroiled in an ongoing public dispute with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the United States and its NATO allies continue their drawdown from Afghanistan, support the ANSF as they prepare for the upcoming presidential and provincial council elections, and attempt to determine a post-2014 U.S. and NATO-ISAF military presence. Because of this dispute—stemming largely from President Karzai’s intransigence—the United States may have no choice but to wait until after the Afghan presidential election to finalize a BSA.

President Karzai appears to be conducting a deliberate campaign to sabotage the U.S.-Afghanistan partnership, through the release of detainees over the objections of his U.S. military counterparts and in direct violation of a March 2013 U.S.-Afghanistan agreement on detainees. In addition, Karzai apparently fabricated accusations against NATO of indiscriminately killing Afghan and even foreign civilians. He also placed additional conditions on a BSA between the United States and Afghanistan in November, after negotiations had concluded and a Karzai-appointed loya jirga had endorsed it.

The timing of President Karzai’s actions are deliberate. The presidential elections are approximately two months away, and because the Afghan constitution limits President Karzai to only two terms, he cannot compete in them and must transfer power to an elected successor. Therefore, President Karzai’s actions reflect desperate attempts to avoid becoming a lame duck and to maintain relevancy as the political realities change around him. Through these antics, he is attempting to sustain leverage with Afghans and the international community.

The United States should ignore these recent provocations and look to the longer game, recognizing that the upcoming elections have the potential to significantly alter the political landscape and offer opportunities for Afghan governmental reforms, reconciliation, and a less contentious partnership with the international community.  An election might also inject greater legitimacy into the Afghan system and a stronger political consensus among Afghan leaders.

As such, the United States should suspend negotiations with President Karzai around the BSA and wait until his successor is in place to move forward with the agreement.  (All of the leading Afghan presidential candidates have expressed support for the BSA.) U.S. policymakers should also shift their focus from the BSA to supporting a transparent, inclusive, and credible political transition process, recognizing that it will ultimately be up to Afghans to create a successful process and legitimate outcome.

Eleven Afghan presidential tickets—one president and two vice-presidents on each ticket—are now competing for the presidency, and official campaigning began on February 3. Afghanistan’s electoral institutions have taken the lead in electoral preparations, and Afghanistan’s security organizations are preparing security plans for the electoral environment, with NATO-ISAF in a supporting role.

As the international community supports Afghanistan’s electoral bodies in providing a technically sound election, NATO-ISAF should advise and work with Afghanistan’s security agencies to protect candidates, election workers, and voters as well as to ensure that security is provided in non-political ways. This includes preventing a repeat of the 2009 presidential elections, during which a large number of ghost polling stations were created and subsequent ballot stuffing occurred.

Moreover, the United States should continue coordinating with the region, especially Pakistan, to request their commitment and cooperation for a peaceful election through border closures and other containment strategies.  Strong signals should be sent to Afghan candidates, election workers, and others that a free, fair, and credible election is essential for long-term financial support from the international community.

Finally, the United States should refrain from announcing a full withdrawal of U.S. troops prior to the election, which would send the wrong signals to Afghanistan and the region and potentially derail Afghanistan’s chance for a stable future through a peaceful political transition.

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