Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Obama’s visit in ‘pre-dawn darkness’

Kate Clark 6 min

President Obama has visited Afghanistan under cover of darkness, signed a ten year strategic partnership agreement, spoken to the American – although not the Afghan – people from Bagram, claimed near victory over al-Qaida and the Taleban, said a new day was dawning for Afghanistan and left. The Taleban, meanwhile, tried to pretend the visit and what they called the ‘Treaty between Foxes’ was the reason for their attack on Green Village, a heavily fortified area where western contractors live on the outskirts of Kabul. Gunmen and suicide bombers managed to kill and injure several children walking to school, as well as some security guards and police. The Taleban have also announced the launch of their ‘spring operation’ to begin on 3 May. Kate Clark, a Senior Analyst at AAN, has been attempting to unravel the multiple strands of news, mayhem and Orwellian spin of the last 24 hours and have a first look at the Strategic Partnership Agreement.

How are we to read Obama’s visit: the leader of the most powerful nation on earth makes a quick dash to Afghanistan, scuttling in and out during the night? There was something pitiful about the US president travelling all the way to Kabul to sign an agreement with a nation which should, on the face of it, be American’s junior partner. Yet, President Karzai also appeared overly and humbly eager to please. In his brief statement, he managed to address Obama repeatedly as ‘sir’, including twice in one sentence as he thanked the American people from the bottom of his heart.

I later realised the Strategic Partnership Agreement may not have been the primary reason for the flying visit. As the BBC radio headline put it on Wednesday morning: ‘President Barak Obama has addressed the American people from Afghanistan.’ For Obama in an election year, Kabul made the perfect backdrop for a speech on how US forces had killed Bin Laden on his watch a year ago and for his assertion that this unpopular war is nearly over.

Obama’s speech really was propaganda aimed at Americans who may well not realise how little resemblance is has to facts on the ground. Obama said the war continues to ensure al-Qaida cannot attack America again, it has taken longer than expected and is different from the war on Iraq; the brave American men and women in uniform have broken the Taleban’s momentum, built strong ANSF, turned the tide, killed bin Laden and made Obama’s ‘goal’ to defeat al-Qaida ‘within reach.’ This is the pre-dawn darkness, said Obama, with the light of a new day on the horizon. America is emerging from a decade of conflict abroad and economic crisis at home and it is time to renew America, where children live free from fear and have the skills to claim their dreams (and so on and so forth).

Did the president scurry in and out under cover of darkness because, even though the Taleban are almost defeated, they are still a threat – or to get onto prime-time television in the States?(1) Either way, the night-time visit looked weird and weak. The Taleban attacks, in a heavily defended area of Kabul, launched a few hours later, appeared to demonstrate the implausibility of his claim to have almost defeated the insurgency. As the blogger, El Snarkistani, points out, the attack represented a second intelligence failure in less than three weeks by NDS and NATO; getting vehicle borne explosive devices into the capital should be a lot more difficult.

Yet the Taleban’s trumpeting of the attacks as a response to the presidential visit (see it here in Pashto) was also a shameless attempt at spinning. It seems highly doubtful that Taleban operatives managed to scramble to attack at such short notice. More likely, the spokesman exploited the Obama visit as the handiest propaganda opportunity to give resonance to a randomly timed attack.

The Taleban have yet to mention the children and other civilians they killed and injured this morning. Two children are dead. Three more, along with two of their teachers, all walking to school 200 metres away from the site of the attack, are injured (see UNAMA’s condemnation here). Private security guards, police and the attackers themselves are also among the casualties. The movement’s announcement of its spring offensive of the same day says the safeguarding of civilian life and property will be a priority for its fighters. It also urges Afghan civilians to stay away from ‘invaders’ bases and their hirelings’. Clearly, no-one managed to tell the children going to school that they were risking attack.

Propaganda from all sides has been slopping round the Afghan territory in the last 24 hours, no more so than in the long-awaited and now signed Strategic Partnership Agreement (read the full text here). It is packed full of guff. Even George Orwell would have been impressed with the sheer number and frequency of abstract nouns it contains – peace, stability, women’s rights, freedom, territorial integrity, anti-corruption, mutual respect, justice, efficiency, accountability. The eye spins over the surface of the text as one wonders what the authors could possibly mean by it all. Orwell would surely also have appreciated the double think which features heavily throughout. Afghanistan, with its record of rigged elections, for example, promises to ‘strengthen and improve its electoral process.’ President Karzai, who a few weeks ago endorsed a statement saying women are worth less than men (read a blog by AAN on this here) signed an agreement which promised repeatedly to continue to safeguard women’s rights.

The sheer quantity of these pious aspirations, used ad nauseam over the past decade despite most of them being at odds with reality, is an onslaught on the mind of the reader. This is the case with corruption – both parties will ‘fight’ it ‘decisively’ -, with aid – they will ‘devise mechanisms to enhance [its] effectiveness’ -, and with governance – they will ‘improve’ it and take ‘tangible steps to further the efficiency and effectiveness of its three branches of state’. Yet occasionally, within the dense verbiage, a sentence or half sentence jumps out which is saying something important. On a first reading, I would put forward the following points in this category:

1) The Strategic Partnership Agreement covers ten years and is an attempt to have a comprehensive document in that it covers aid, economy, education, justice and war but lacks detail on all of these matters.

2) The agreement couches the war as one against ‘al-Qaida and its affiliates’. The Taleban and other Afghan insurgent groups are not mentioned. This is a misreading of the war in Afghanistan made, I assume, because it is politically more palatable to pretend this is a war against those who targeted the United States in 2001. Al-Qaida – the term itself is imprecisely used as shorthand for different foreign jihadi groups, including Pakistani groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and so on – may aid Afghan insurgents, but this is not, in any way, a relationship between equals. The vast majority of Coalition and ANSF fighting is against Afghan groups, mainly the Taleban who also enjoy overwhelming command and control of the insurgency and provide the vast majority of the fighters, but there is also Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others. Lumping the Taleban and al-Qaida together has been a major strategic mistake since 2001 and one of the reasons why the US can not get out of the war.

3) The Strategic Partnership Agreement says the two parties’ respective obligations under the agreement are ‘without prejudice to Afghan sovereignty over its territory and each Party’s right of self-defence, consistent with international law.’

This looks like a get out clause for the US which may well assert its right to self-defence, not just for troops under fire, but also as a proactive, global right – to defend US interests and those of its allies (this is how one American diplomat thought the phrase could be interpreted), ie Afghan sovereignty, as Kabul might see it, and the US right to self-defence may not be compatible.

4) This is not a status of forces agreement – or ‘Bilateral Security Agreement’ as it is termed in the Strategic Partnership Agreement. That should come, the Agreement says, in a year’s time. This is by far the more important issue, as the US needs its forces to continue to enjoy immunity from the Afghan justice system for any crimes they commit on Afghan soil. Sorting out this issue has been made more urgent after many Afghans, including parliamentarians, demanded that those responsible for the Panjway killing spree and the Quran burning at Bagram had to be tried in Afghan courts. Whether or not a status of forces agreement is signed will ultimately decide whether US forces can stay or, as in Iraq, go.

5) However, as it stands, Afghanistan agrees to provide US forces with continued access to and use of Afghan facilities to the end of 2014 and beyond (as it may be agreed in the ‘Bilateral Security Agreement’) for the purposes of, ‘combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates, training the ANSF and other mutually determined missions to advance shared security interests.’ Or as Obama put it in his speech: there will be ‘two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counter-terrorism and continued training.’ The aim, he says, is to destroy al-Qaida, not to build a country in America’s image. It seems then that the mission is not about nation building. Yet this is completely at odds with most of the Strategic Partnership Agreement which does very much focus on nation building and with an agenda which looks, despite its repeated commitments to internationally accepted norms, not much as that of the Afghan government in practice.

6) The Strategic Partnership Agreement foresees some US troops staying on, in fewer numbers, to carry on the war. This matches the push of senior military figures to maintain a Special Forces/CIA fight in Afghanistan (see an AAN analysis here and news reporting here). President Obama has now signed an agreement which foresees the war continuing beyond 2014, even as he told the American people that the time of war will end. Orwell could not have put it better himself.

Read some non-AAN analysis on the subject here:

Anne Gearan And Robert Burns at The Official Wire/AP
Ahmed Rashid at the Financial Times


(1) That’s what the AP commented: ‘The president flew in secret to sign a long-awaited security compact with Afghanistan. It was after midnight in Kabul when the signing took place, and 4 a.m. there when Obama addressed Americans in a specially arranged 7:30 p.m. EDT speech on network television.’


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