Whoever expected clarity and a swift signing of the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) following the consultative loya jirga will be disappointed. The heads of the 50 committees duly reported back on this final day with a unanimity of views which strongly suggested prior coordination; all supported and almost all urged President Karzai to sign the BSA before the end of the year. In his closing speech, however, he kept to his stance that it should be signed only after the presidential elections due to take place in April 2014 and he added new conditions: United States forces should immediately stop entering Afghan homes and the Obama administration show a commitment to the peace process and to fair elections. After saying he would continue bargaining with the US, he was lambasted by the chair of the jirga, former interim president Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, who said the BSA should be signed now. Kate Clark, Gran Hewad and Obaid Ali report (with input from Thomas Ruttig).
On Thursday (22 November), when President Karzai opened the jirga, he kept insisting it was the delegates’ decision – the “nation’s representatives” – to agree to the BSA (now officially called the Security and Defence Agreement) or not (for AAN’s analysis of the opening day and the text of the BSA, here). Today, he thanked them for their “suggestions” and, despite their almost unanimously expressed desire for a speedy signing, left saying he would carry on negotiations with the US. The jirga’s call to sign before the end of 2013 had given him a face-saving opportunity to gracefully back down and sign earlier, but he chose not to take it and, indeed, his position has hardened further.
The president has added three new conditions for the BSA to be signed: a complete and immediate end to US troops entering Afghan homes and the US government assuring “fair elections” and showing sincere “support” for the peace process. This was also the gist of a telephone conversation he had with US Secretary of State, John Kerry, as reported by the Palace yesterday (23 November).
Karzai was at odds with the jirga, not only over when to sign the BSA, but also over the sensitive issue of US forces entering Afghan homes. This issue is covered in article 3.3 which was left blank in published versions of the BSA draft, but which, in a written communication with AAN, presidential spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said ran as follows (note the words are identical with president Obama’s letter to Karzai of 20 November):
US forces shall not enter Afghan homes for the purposes of military operations, except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to the life and limb of US nationals.
The jirga committees all agreed to this, although some asked for a clarification of what this might amount to. (On the opening day of the jirga, Karzai gave as an example a scenario where US forces might want to enter a home where a kidnapped American soldier was held.) Despite the jirga’s assent to this clause, however, the president summed their views up rather differently: “Americans starting from today may not conduct operations in our houses. From now on, they are not allowed to enter a home. Is this what you want or not?” Not surprisingly, there was only scattered applause; this had not been their meaning.
The chairmen and women of the jirga’s 50 committees backed the BSA with only minor suggestions of amendments – with most committees making the same proposals, most commonly: add “respect for Islamic values” wherever respect for the constitution is mentioned; sort out the discrepancies between the Dari and Pashto versions of the text; the US can retain criminal jurisdiction over its forces, but should pay for the families of victims to attend trials in the US, the Afghan government should be represented at such trials or, alternately, the trials should be held in US courts on Afghan soil; families should get compensation; define “terrorism” and “al-Qaida affiliates”; (1) the US should build their bases well and hand them over to the government when they leave; firm up the language in the BSA to make it legally enforceable; equip Afghan forces well and especially the Afghan air force; don’t spy on Afghan phone callers; US contractors (and some committees said US forces as well) should pay taxes; give contracts to Afghan companies, not American ones; have a US base in Bamian in addition to the nine mentioned in the text. (2)
This last day of the jirga was all very strange. The ‘representatives’ of a nation of millions could not have come to such near identical conclusions as they did without behind-the-scenes organisation. How that was done was reasonably clear: the delegates were largely hand-picked and the jirga facilitators mainly came from or were organised by the Office of Administrative Affairs run by Sadeq Mudaber who was also head of the jirga secretariat and is a close Karzai ally. The pro-BSA advisor to the president on national security, former foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, and his people were also there to answer “technical questions”. Several delegates told AAN that provincial governors, who were among the delegates, had played their ‘traditional’ role in such gatherings as government enforcers.
It should be noted that there was only a ragged response to the president’s call for delegates to say if they agreed with the jirga declaration, compared with previous occasions where delegates rose to their feet and unanimously acclaimed their approval. Moreover, at this point, when proceedings were interrupted by a dissenter whom other delegates tried to hush, Karzai said, “This is a jirga, the delegates have the opportunity to express their views. If you prevented the delegates from expressing their views, the declaration would be considered as fake”. Possibly, this was a hint that he might later call the jirga into question, but he did also afterwards say, “The majority of the members of the jirga approved this, I can see this.” Despite all this, one is still left with the question of why the discrepancy between the jirga’s and the president’s proposals?
There may be a difference in opinion in the senior ranks of the government if the public altercation between Karzai and Mojaddedi is anything to go by. Calling Karzai “my son and my student” and describing how he kisses his hand and respects him very much, Mojaddedi kindly chastised Karzai for listening to his words, but not always putting them into actions. (Karzai was deputy foreign minister under Mojaddedi in 1992 and belonged to his tanzim, the Afghanistan National Salvation Front, during the fight against the Soviet occupation, although neither were combatants.) Mojaddedi said the BSA should be signed as soon as possible, a position he had earlier made clear to reporters. Might there also be difference of tactic between the pro-BSA Spanta (see his comments to parliamentarians here) and the president? Or was it all part of a plan that we cannot quite understand yet?
Whatever happened behind the scenes, we are now left with no clear decision – which is what the jirga was supposed to provide – on the BSA. The president has said he will be re-opening negotiations. The US, however, has absolutely rejected any delay: “We have submitted our final offer on the text,” said White House spokesman, Jay Carney on Friday, “and we hope the Jirga will not be left to think that we are open to rewriting it… It is time to get this done.” State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, even went further saying a failure to sign the deal “would be seen as a signal to the world that Afghanistan is not committed to a partnership with its supporters.” She also warned that such a move could be seen as a sign that President Karzai and his team were willing to jeopardize all of the financial and practical help that has been offered. An indication of how badly this may go down in the wider American political circles came in yesterday’s editorial in the New York Times:
Managing a productive relationship with Afghanistan has always been difficult with Mr Karzai, who is an unpredictable, even dangerous reed on which to build a cooperative future. And it is unclear if Afghanistan, driven by corruption, sectarian divisions and the Taliban insurgency can have any better governance when elections are held next April. Mr Karzai’s long record of duplicitous behaviour is just one of the many reasons it is tempting, after a decade of war and tremendous cost in lives and money, to argue that America should just wash its hands of Afghanistan. There is something unseemly about the United States having to cajole him into a military alliance that is intended to benefit his fragile country.
Trying to work out what the president’s game plan is and why there is still so much mistrust between the two allies is not easy. At its basis, surely, is the structural discrepancy between US power (money, weapons, political clout) and Afghan sovereignty. This means Karzai does not have full control of his country and does not trust that America has his or the country’s best interests at heart. It is only with great reluctance that he accepts foreign forces on Afghan soil and he sees an equivalence between US and Taleban actions (both ‘martyr’ Afghan civilians, he said, in his opening speech to the jirga). He has not welcomed US forces staying beyond 2014, but nor does he appear able to reject them.
Karzai is suspicious of US intentions, even at this late stage and when the Americans, at least, thought they finally had an agreement fixed. Karzai feels they have broken prior agreements, for example the memorandums of understanding on detentions (March 2012) and night raids (2012). The latter he though had banned US detentions; the US military thought otherwise. This is why the mistrust on the clause on US forces entering Afghan homes and, possibly, his demand today that there should be an absolute ban on this.
This wariness about US intentions also explains why he has raised issues at the last minute and apparently out of the blue, for example, his accusation that the US wants to interfere in elections. This was triggered, according to the president’s spokesman, Aimal Faizi, briefing journalists, including AAN last night (23 November 2013), by US Ambassador James Cunningham and Special Envoy James Dobbins saying the signing could not be delayed because the presidential elections might go to a second round. This might seem a reasonable prediction given the candidates on offer, but Karzai’s suspicions of a plot stems from his belief that the US and United Nations interfered in his 2009 victory when they questioned the validity of his first round votes which he believed had carried him over the 50% threshold (they alleged ballot rigging). (However, if his fears are true that once the US got the BSA it would interfere in the elections, this could as easily mean they would now interfere by engineering the victory of a pro-BSA candidate.)
Karzai’s third condition for signing the BSA – the US supporting the peace process – was another bolt out of the blue. Karzai went into a lot of detail in his speech today on how badly wrong the US had been on opening the Qatar office and suggesting they were planning to give chunks of Afghanistan to the Taleban in exchange for a deal (he said the former Taleban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Za’if, had confirmed this proposal). Karzai also described peace as being “in the hands” of the US and Pakistan. All of this, together with reports that the High Peace Council has just managed to see Mullah Baradar, whom the Karzai government has long insisted needs to be released from Pakistan custody to help in negotiations, suggest the president may think a peace deal – with US, and now even Pakistani, support – could be imminent.
The US – and its NATO allies – want everything sorted so they can get on with the politics and planning of another 10 years’ deployment. This they will not get. Faizi reported that the last phone call between Karzai and Kerry was “friendly, but tense” with Kerry making threats, warning that if there was no agreement, there would be no security and that Karzai was putting his country at risk. The president was not worried, said Faizi because, “we recognise no deadline.” When asked if Karzai was concerned that the US might lose faith and withdraw altogether, the president’s spokesman said: “We don’t believe there is a zero option.” This rock solid belief that the US will not walk away from Afghanistan gives Karzai the confidence to hold out when the Americans, as well as everyone at the jirga, including Mojaddedi, are pressing him to sign.
But as long as the BSA is not signed, Karzai maintains the power of a man still negotiating. Once agreed, his influence wanes. For those who believe Afghanistan needs US support and a clear vision of its future as soon as possible, the Afghan president’s actions look like the reckless gambit of a man bent on holding on to his personal power at all cost. The alternative interpretation, however, is that Karzai genuinely fears that whenever the Americans have what they want, they will return to their old ways, raiding homes, detaining Afghans and meddling in the elections and in the peace process. As Karzai said on the first day of the jirga, there is no trust between them. He does not believe their assurances. He wants to hold on to some form of leverage, as, in his mind, this is the only way to force the US to refrain from stomping over Afghan sovereignty.
(1) The call to define al-Qaida affiliates seems one of the reasonable demands. The phrase dates back to the US Congress’ 2001 authorisation to the president to use force and has been used to cover a multitude of sins in the war on terror outside Afghanistan (for more detail, see here).
(2) Committee 50 was a slight exception; it made a few different suggestions, including putting a high-ranking Afghan officer in Centcom.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020