Early in December 2013, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, made it clear that if the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the governments of Afghanistan and the United States was not signed by the end of the 2013, there would be no more American troops in Afghanistan in 2015. He said, “It really needs to be done now,” to allow other NATO nations to make decisions about their troop numbers in Afghanistan. It was one of many pushes to meet the deadline. However, that deadline has since come and gone, with President Karzai continuing to delay signing the BSA document. AAN’s frequent guest author Gary Owen ponders why the US has not thrown in the towel yet and lays out three scenarios that might be behind the US’s ‘patience’.
One week before the year’s end, the Obama administration backed away from its previous harshly pursued deadline to sign the BSA by the end of 2013 – a decision that many cynically assessed as a major loss of face or at least an “embarrassing turn” as the New York Times put it. Even General Dempsey all of a sudden indicated that the United States could wait until the summer of 2014 for a final decision – i.e., after the Afghan presidential election that will find a replacement for the incumbent after his two terms in office. This softening of the once-hard deadline could mean that one of three scenarios is already in play. They have varying degrees of impact for the future of Afghanistan.
The first scenario, the so-called “zero option” for the presence of American troops, is still a possible one, as just recently reiterated by White House spokesman Jay Carney. A year ago, the zero option seemed to be the Obama administration’s most likely course of action – or at least the one presented as such by Lt. Gen. David W. Barno (ret.), a former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan. Many suspected it might have even then been just a pressure tool (the Obama administration applying pressure at least publicly on Karzai, making it clear that all options were still on the table). With the high level attention that the BSA negotiations have received since, though, this seemed less likely for a while. John Kerry’s marathon visit in October 2013 and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s visit to senior leadership of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) last December were both strong indications that the United States was still keenly interested in making a deal.
However, the frustration over the Karzai administration has been peaking again over the past few days, because of the clash over 88 prisoners from Bagram whom Karzai wants to set free but the US government considers particularly dangerous (for yesterday’s AAN analysis see here). It cannot be fully excluded that the zero option might now be discussed in earnest again (in which case a BSA wouldn’t be necessary anymore, so why bother straining an already precarious relationship further). It would be a step that many in the US would see justified by the continued evidence of both Afghan government corruption and the many flaws in the US aid programmes as relentlessly presented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko. In this regard, many Afghans and Afghanistan observers are concerned that a full military withdrawal could also mean the withdrawal of large parts of foreign, mainly US, non-military aid to the Afghan government. The Afghan economy is not generating the revenues necessary for the country to function without foreign money – rather to the opposite. Still, with the current relatively high (although already decreased) levels,(1) foreign aid was worth 98 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2010–11 in Afghanistan (from 66 per cent in 2005–06), according to an October 2012 World Bank report. The report added that
the overall financing gap (before donor grants) is projected to increase sharply in the next several years and then stay very high for the rest of the decade. After peaking at more than 40 percent of GDP in 2014/15, the financing gap is projected to gradually decline when [and if] expected mining revenues materialize.
There could be a further precipitous reduction in that aid if the United States tied civilian aid to its troop presence. Recent comments, for example by James Dobbins, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, seem to further build up that scare scheme: in December, he told Congress, “My judgment is no troops, no aid, or almost no aid. The political support for the aid comes from the military presence.”
On the other hand, one might argue, withdrawing all support from Afghanistan would mean even more damage to the US’s image abroad, as such a withdrawal would be perceived by other governments as abandoning the Afghan people – particularly governments that have announced they will continue current levels of development aid to Afghanistan (as Germany, the UK or the EU as a whole) or even increase it (as Sweden). Some might be encouraged to follow the US’s approach. So while total troop withdrawal is possible, given the potential for international political fallout, the Americans are not likely to withdraw all financial aid as well. It is more likely that the aid would continue to flow, but through mechanisms like the World Bank-managed Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), rather than as direct aid from organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
The second possibility for the softening of the US’s stance is that the Americans have secured a deal with whomever they feel could become Karzai’s likely successor(s). One takes the actions of any diplomatic entity at face value at one’s peril and this is particularly true at this stage in Afghanistan. Karzai aside, all the other major candidates for president are part of the current political system and they know what it takes to survive. At this point, from the Obama administration’s perspective, survival means making a deal with the Americans. While a full withdrawal of aid dollars is unlikely for political reasons, it’s probably not a gamble that whoever will be Afghanistan’s next president would want to take.
The third and most likely reason the United States is pressing less strongly for the signing of the BSA is that they intend to stay, and are willing to give the Afghan government significant leeway to make that happen. The reason is simple: the continued prosecution of counter-terrorism (CT) operations in Afghanistan, and by extension, into Pakistan. While much attention has been paid to the actions of the counterinsurgency (COIN) war in Afghanistan, the Central Intelligence Agency (which is officially also referred to as an Other Government Agency/OGA) has continued to prosecute the drone campaign that has faded from the spotlight in reporting on the Afghan war. This lack of media focus on CIA operations is due to the increased focus on the drone campaign still in full swing in Pakistan, despite the closure of some CIA bases in Afghanistan. To continue that effort in Pakistan and ensure that al-Qaeda pockets are completely removed from the region, the Obama administration is keenly interested in maintaining a base in Afghanistan. If Karzai is to be believed, the Americans are asking for nine bases in Afghanistan, which would be more than enough real estate to support CT efforts, given the smaller footprint of joint CIA/Special Operations “cross matrix” teams. And those are the bases semi-publicly on the table: embedding these teams, if needed, within larger ANSF facilities in other locations would be much simpler. While the Americans need to be seen as not allowing Karzai to push them around, they are still eager to not leave behind safe havens for al-Qaeda and their affiliates.
As powerful a reason to swallow Afghan procrastination, though, is the Obama administration’s reluctance to be seen as abandoning yet another major US expedition in the ‘war on terror’. The US Democratic Party is looking ahead to the presidential election in 2016, as well as the legacy of this administration as it relates to foreign policy. The voter at home sees the numbers of American dying in the conflict slow to a trickle, which would remain low even if the US continued to pursue terrorists in the region using Afghanistan as a base. The other failed US intervention, Iraq, has turned into an unmitigated disaster of ethnic strife; the United States is still holding detainees in Guantanamo; and international outcry continues to rise over the use of drones to kill terrorists. Also at stake are US economic and geo-political aspirations in the region. Much is made of the so-called ‘over the horizon’ capability of remote controlled drone aircraft, but a base in Afghanistan, a country bordered by some nations the US would very much like to influence, could be to long-term American advantage in the region.
For Obama, being seen as the president who imposed some degree of order and security in Afghanistan and by extension Central Asia may be enough to keep the Americans at the table a little longer, waiting for that signature. Karzai appears to have a point here: “The US seems to need Afghanistan almost as much as Afghanistan continues to need US (and others’) troops and money.”
(1) Note, not everything that is declared ‘aid’ fulfils the OECD criteria for ‘classical’ (not-for-profit, etc.) Official Development Aid (ODA). And USAID contributions for Afghanistan already fell from USD 4.5 to 1.8 billion between 2010 and 2012. All humanitarian aid (as opposed to longer-term development aid) for Afghanistan sunk by half in 2012.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020