War & Peace

Afghanistan, the United States and the BSA: Who blinks first?


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Since the consultative loya jirga that ended in confusion on Sunday (27 November 2013), United States’ and Afghan positions on the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) have hardened. President Karzai has added to the conditions he says must be met before he will sign the BSA, while President Obama’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, has said that if the BSA is not signed promptly, the US will have no choice but to start planning for complete withdrawal. So what is Karzai’s game plan, asks AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, and what might the ‘zero option’ of no international troops after 2014 mean for Afghanistan?

Since Karzai’s surprise announcement at the end of the loya jirga that he did not intend to sign the BSA before next year’s elections, due to be held in April 2013, the US has been scrambling to understand Karzai’s position, to try to change his mind and to assess what their options are. The meeting between Ambassador Rice and President Karzai, which took place on Monday night (25 November 2013) in the presidential palace, however, did not go well at all, as was clear from the blunt White House statement released the following day:

‫‫Ambassador Rice stressed that we have concluded negotiations and deferring the signature of the agreement until after next year’s elections is not viable, as it would not provide the United States and NATO allies the clarity necessary to plan for a potential post-2014 military presence… The lack of a signed BSA would jeopardize NATO and other nations’ pledges of assistance made at the Chicago and Tokyo conferences in 2012. Ambassador Rice reiterated that, without a prompt signature, the US would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no US or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan.

The US message was unequivocal: sign soon or risk the ‘zero option’, which, according to the statement, would include no US troops, no NATO troops, no ‘enabling’ of Afghan security forces and the disappearance of billions of dollars of aid – not just the salaries of the police and army, but also the civilian assistance that had been pledged at Tokyo.

President Karzai countered this warning with breezy confidence, adding to the conditions he had made on the last day of the loya jirga on Sunday (24 November 2013) (read about it here). He now wants, not only an immediate end to US forces entering Afghan homes, no meddling in the elections and support for a peace process with the Taleban, but also the freeing of all remaining Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

The loya jirga, heavily controlled by government officials, publically accepted the BSA, including a ban on US forces entering Afghan homes unless “under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to the life or limb of US nationals.” Although a few of the heads of the 50 committees mentioned the peace process and the Afghan prisoners in Guantanamo (these also appeared in the pre-prepared final declaration), many more – indeed almost all them – urged the president to sign the agreement by the end of the year. Yet Karzai still cited the jirga in his demands to the US in the equally blunt Palace read-out of his meeting with Rice:

The president… pointed to the consultative loya jirga declaration, reminding the US that it must give a positive answer to [its] list of requests and suggestions, including the freeing of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo… [He] asked [Rice] to take a message to President Obama from the Afghan people on the security and protection of Afghan homes and a practical start to a peace process before the signing of the BSA…

For the Americans, who must have thought the BSA was pretty well ‘in the bag’ when they saw the overwhelmingly pro-BSA feedback from the jirga committee heads, everything now seems to be in danger of unravelling and for no apparent good reason. One of President Obama’s advisors on Afghanistan, John Podesta (1), characterised Karzai as having “really gone from maddeningly unpredictable to dangerously erratic.” Rice, of course, tried to assure Karzai that the US had no favoured candidate in the elections and said on Tolo TV that the US had no “magic wand” to quickly broker a deal with the Taleban, but it is obviously difficult to counter accusations of meddling (including future meddling) in an atmosphere so fraught with suspicion.

The Americans, like everyone else, are trying to understand what President Karzai’s game plan is. Certainly, if and when he signs the BSA, he loses the influence of a leader still negotiating the fate of his country. What he risks by holding out seems obvious – the complete withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan. Yet this threat falls on deaf ears if, as his spokesman has said, he does not believe in the reality of the ‘zero option’. Instead, Karzai appears to believe that the US wants to stay in Afghanistan come ‘hell or high water’, as, for example, when he told a delighted BBC/RTA television audience in March 2013: “The USA has come and will not go. Therefore, ask for your demands from it with no worries.” (2)

The threat of a ‘zero option’ has also been watered down by mixed messages and the downplaying of it by some US officials. When in July 2013, The New York Times, for example, quoted un-named former US and European officials saying the Obama administration was considering a complete withdrawal, this was followed immediately by criticism from former ambassador, Ryan Crocker (“If it’s a tactic, it’s mindless, if it’s a strategy, it’s criminal”), former ISAF commander General John Allen and the current ISAF commander, General Joseph Dunford. Moreover, until now, there has been no evidence that the US has any firm ‘red lines’; always, in the past, even when there were bad disagreements with Kabul, there has never been any wavering in US money or military support to Afghanistan. Of course, unless and until the US decides to indeed go, we will not know whether Karzai has overestimated Afghanistan’s attractiveness to America, or, as before, gauged accurately how far he can push the US.

The precedents for a ‘zero option’ are not happy. The last time a superpower withdrew its army and subsequently cut off payments to the Afghan security forces in the face of an active insurgency, the state did not hold together. In 1992, the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, cut financial and military aid to Najibullah’s regime that had held out unexpectedly for three years after Soviet forces had withdrawn, and Kabul’s security forces fragmented, with different parts joining the different warring mujahedin factions. Recalling this difficult time is not to say it would happen again. However, one can easily see the destabilising shock of having an Afghan army fighting the Taleban unsupported by US ‘enablers’ – logistics, air support, intelligence, medevac facilities (see AAN analysis here and here). Or imagine having hundreds of thousands of armed but unpaid policemen and soldiers around the country.

With these scenarios presumably in mind, some of Karzai’s most senior aides and officials have spoken out strongly in support of a swift signing of the BSA. The head of the Afghan National Army, General Karimi, was frank on the lack of alternatives for funding and equipping the security services when addressing parliament, telling anti-BSA MPs on 16 November 2013 that it would be fine if they could guarantee funding from other sources; but if not, he said Afghanistan needed the agreement. Kabul has agreed to contribute 500 million dollars annually between 2015 and 2017 to its security forces, but already declining governmental revenues make even this limited contribution doubtful. Anyway the bulk of the four billion dollars needed each year was always due to come from US coffers. The president’s national security advisor, Dadfar Rangin Spanta, also warned MPs that, without the BSA, Afghanistan “would be isolated again, like a lamb stuck among wolves in the desert.” The reference to the neighbours was unmistakable.

Yet, whether one thinks Karzai is courting disaster by risking the ‘zero option’ really depends on one’s perspective on the conflict. The view from Washington is that the US has lost thousands of its people and spent billions of dollars defending the Afghan state against an insurgency; after 2014, it will be supporting Afghan forces to do this themselves, while continuing to only directly fight al Qaida. Karzai, however, has often spoken of peace coming to Afghan villages as the foreign forces leave, implying it is the foreign forces who are the bringers of conflict. He has also frequently distanced himself from the war, presenting the conflict as if only between the US and the Taleban forces and often casting both sides as equally problematic – both ‘martyr’ Afghan civilians, he said, at the loya jirga. To be fair, many of the key decisions in the war – including ‘the surge’ and the setting up of the anti-Taleban local militias, the Afghan Local Police – were not his choices.

Now, has come the resurfacing of an old contention, that Karzai has occasionally made before, that, as he told Radio Azadi, this is an “artificial war.” In the past he has accused US and British forces of helping the Taleban. Now, he seems to believe, as he told the jirga, that the US, in concert with, or in addition to Pakistan, is behind the conflict (translation from BBC Monitoring):

… peace in Afghanistan first of all depends on the USA and secondly it depends on Pakistan. This has been proved to me. This has been proved absolutely to me and I have many reasons for this. My government colleagues and vice-presidents know this and we have discussed this. I do not want to go into details because it will take more time and will also sadden our friends with whom we are going to sign the security agreement. I have evidence.   

As he also stressed at the jirga, there is no trust between him and the Americans, hence his demand that the US should pass a testing period until the elections, to prove it is a faithful ally. However, even if he was convinced of the honesty of the US and the benefits of the BSA, there are other historical precedents which make it difficult for the leader of a country proud of its reputation as a ‘graveyard of empires’ to ask foreign troops to stay deployed in his country. Until now, the foreign military presence largely came under the cover of United Nations Security Council resolutions. (3) After 2014, unless he can defer decisions until after the elections, it would be on Karzai’s invitation that the foreign soldiers stay – and how difficult that would be – as he told the jirga:

Giving bases to the USA from a logical and emotional perspective is not an easy and cheap thing. It is very hard. I swear to God that our honour (gheirat) does not accept that. But we have no other option because of our situation 30 years ago and due to all sorts of foreigners’ conspiracies…

You asked me to sign it with them in a month. Can peace be established in a month? I will sign, but peace will not have come. Who will be guilty before history then? Who will be guilty before Afghan history if I sign and peace is not established? Answer me. I will sign it, but peace will not have come tomorrow. The country will be destroyed. They will be sitting calm in their military bases and we will be smashed. Therefore, we want guarantees.

Add all this together and you have a president who does not believe the Americans when they threaten to leave, does not really believe in the war they have been fighting in his country and does not trust them to behave honourably if they do stay after 2014. If this is indeed what he believes, it is not surprising he is in no hurry to sign the BSA. However, one might also question, if he believes the US to be such a faithless ally, why he is considering tying his country’s fate to Washington for the next ten years at all; why not just simply say no to the agreement? It seems that President Karzai does not really want the BSA, but at the same time, does not want to be the man who rejects it either.

(1) John Podesta, chief of staff in former president, Bill Clinton’s administration is now chair of the think-tank, Center for American Progress, and part of an effort to offer the US administration independent views on Afghanistan. He was speaking to NPR.

(2) A fuller rendering of the exchanges on the programme, Open Jirga, a joint BBC/RTA production, hosted by Daoud Junbish on 18 March 2013, is here (text supplied by the BBC):

Karzai: If it is in our favour, yes. We will sign it if they surrender to our demands.

[Applause]

Junbish: Do you mean you are not yet sure whether it is favourable?

Karzai: It is favourable if they surrender to us.

Junbish: What do you mean? Please explain a bit.

Karzai: It means that they want bases from us. A security agreement means base. It has no other meaning. And we have good bases. We are an extremely important and strategic country in the heart of the world. We are surrounded by the world’s superpowers of today and tomorrow. Russia, China and India are here. And then smaller powers; Iran, Turkey and others are here. Afghanistan is the owner here. This is a power that we have in its own right. We must use this power in favour of Afghanistan. We give bases for the USA. It is welcome, but the USA should give its aid to us unconditionally and to the Afghan government. It should equip our air forces. It should build our water dams. Who asked about it?

[Applause]

Junbish: Mr President, please clarify whether it is probable that the pact will not be signed if your demands are not met.

Karzai: Brother, the USA has come and will not go.

[Applause and audience laughing]

Karzai] … Therefore, ask for your demands from it with no worries… And if it was going to leave, we would say goodbye and rely on God. We would do our work and it would do its work.

(3) US forces involved in ‘counter-terrorism’ operations as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) are not under a UN mandate, although the mission is referred to in the ISAF resolutions. For more detail on the legal basis for the US deployment, see AAN reporting here and here.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace