The words of Presidents Karzai and Obama, who met in Washington, are now being weighed and scrutinised in an attempt to determine what they are planning for Afghanistan over the next few, crucial years. The headline news was ISAF moving to a support and advisory role sooner than planned, with phase 5 of the security transition being brought forward by a symbolic couple of months, from mid-2013 to spring 2013. More importantly, it is now clear US war aims have been severely limited to support for Afghan security forces and fighting ‘al-Qa’eda and its affiliates’. Conditionality for US support – on women’s rights, anti-corruption and even free elections – was far less in evidence. Instead, Afghan sovereignty was the buzzword. In exchange, President Karzai appears to have agreed to continuing immunity for US troops. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, reports, with additional thoughts from AAN co-director, Martine van Bijlert. (All quotes are from the two leaders’ joint statement.(*))
Obama looked like a man keen to get his nation out of Afghanistan, although not entirely, Karzai a man keen to claw back sovereignty for his nation, but again not entirely. While the two nations look likely to be entangled for some time to come, some extrication was in evidence. Obama, in particular, appears to have abandoned what had been the hopeless US game of trying to impose conditions on the Afghan government. They were rarely met and it made both sides furious and unhappy. Instead, the US president has focussed on the bare minimum of what is important to him: ensuring al-Qaeda is kept out of Afghanistan, which means keeping some US anti-terrorism capabilities in place and supporting Afghan security forces.
A useful signifier of how times have changed was the emphasis on Afghan sovereignty – the word was mentioned four times in the joint statement and fifteen times in the press conference – and the way corruption has dropped off the agenda – it was mentioned only once in the statement in the phrase ‘shared fight against corruption’ and only four times in the press conference and then only in reply to a journalist’s question.
Obama has now indicated how he sees the mission playing out over the next two years:
Our troops will continue to fight alongside Afghans, when needed. But let me say it as plainly as I can: starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission – training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. It will be an historic moment and another step toward full Afghan sovereignty – something I know that President Karzai cares deeply about, as do the Afghan people.
The two leaders announced that the final tranche of transition will now occur slightly sooner than planned in spring 2013 (Obama said it was because so much progress had been made). ISAF will ‘shift from combat to support’. However, the joint statement also said that, ‘most unilateral US combat operations should end, with US forces pulling back their patrols from Afghan villages’ (emphases added).
This looks to be a way of quietly leaving the non-ISAF, largely US Special Operations Forces (SOF) Enduring Freedom mission intact. The US SOF is the main international force involved in the targeted killing and detention of suspected Taleban leaders (see this AAN study) and also works closely with the Afghan SOF and ALP. The new unified command for all SOF in Afghanistan, under the leadership of an American general, has been another indicator that US SOF, at least, will be fighting the Taleban for some time to come (for more details on this, see here).
Some issues important to President Karzai do seem to have been tackled. US forces will not be patrolling Afghan villages – this was repeated many times – and there will be an ‘accelerated provision of appropriate equipment and enablers.’ The latter is important as, at the moment, Afghan Security Forces remain very dependent on the foreign military for close air support, MEDEVACing, intelligence and other, so called enablers.
One example of what can happen when a province goes completely into the hands of the Afghan Security Forces is Faryab, where AAN researcher, Obaid Ali, reported on an upsurge in Taleban activity following the departure of NATO forces. Locals believe the limited or indeed lack of air support to Afghan forces has really circumscribed their capacity to carry out night raids and keep the Taleban off-balance and has left the Taleban emboldened and with far more freedom of movement. (See also a Washington Post report on the situation in Kunar here.) However, enablers are usually the most technically difficult parts of the military to get up and running and cannot be hurried. Another issue which has caused fury and upset on both sides is the right or not of US forces to detain and hold Afghans. Karzai said they had reached an agreement:
Concerning Afghan sovereignty, we agreed on the complete return of detention centres and detainees to Afghan sovereignty, and that this will be implemented soon after my return to Afghanistan.
However, the joint statement said:
…the Presidents committed to placing Afghan detainees under the sovereignty and control of Afghanistan, while also ensuring that dangerous fighters remain off the battlefield.
What sabotaged the working out of the March 2012 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on handing over Bagram was precisely the lack of US trust that the Afghan authorities would keep ‘dangerous fighters’ who passed into their control ‘off the battlefield’. It therefore stopped handing them over (see our reporting here, here and here). Possibly, an agreement has now been reached that the government is willing to use administrative detention under the Additional Protocol of the Geneva Conventions and the US will have a veto over releases – without these conditions, it seems unlikely the US will hand over those it deems dangerous. Bagram will need monitoring in the next few months.
The US president gave this confident message on the war – surely only to his own electorate?
… by the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete – Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end.
To my ‘Afghanised’ ears, this just sounded strange. How can Obama predict when the war will end? In the absence of a successful peace process, the fighting looks very unlikely to be over by December 2014. Indeed, the leaders discussions have centred, precisely, on how the Afghan state can shoulder the burden of the fight. Moreover, it is also clear Obama is not actually expecting such a clean exit. Speaking about the goals of any US troops still deployed after 2014, he said:
Number one, to train, assist, and advise Afghan forces so that they can maintain their own security; and number two, making sure that we can continue to go after remnants of al Qaeda or other affiliates that might threaten our homeland.
This sounded like another statement for the domestic audience: al Qaeda is important in that it threatens Americans, not because of its more immediate threat to Afghans.
There were strong words on the commitment of the two presidents to conclude a Bilateral Security Agreement to govern post-2014 military relations. They wanted it, ‘as soon as possible’, saying it was ‘in both countries’ interest.’ There was little on substance, although the statement detailed what needs to be hammered out:
[Presidents Obama and Karzai] discussed the possibility of a sustainable post-2014 US presence, that supports a capable and effective Afghan National Security Force, and that continues to pressure the remnants of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. The scope and nature of any possible post-2014 US presence, legal protections for US forces, and security cooperation between the two countries is to be specified in the Bilateral Security Agreement. The US reaffirmed that it does not seek permanent (1) bases in Afghanistan.
Karzai said the number of possible US troops deployed in Afghanistan after 2014 was not for him to decide(!)(2), while Obama said he was still getting recommendations from the Pentagon and commanders on the ground ‘in the coming weeks’. What is clear, is that the limited mission, mainly training and advising Afghan forces (already much reduced because of ‘green on blue’ attacks, ie by Afghans on international ‘comrades’), but also fighting, is likely to continue.
The major issue to have been agreed is immunity for US troops (and military contractors? – see why this is so crucial here) from Afghan prosecution. Karzai explicitly linked giving up on immunity to gaining on other issues dear to his heart; it looks like a deal had been made:
…We understand that the issue of immunity is of very specific importance for the United States, as was for us the issue of sovereignty and detentions and the continued presence of international forces in Afghan villages and the very conduct of the war itself. With those issues resolved, as we did today, part of it — the rest was done earlier — I can go to the Afghan people and argue for immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a way that Afghan sovereignty will not be compromised, in a way that Afghan law will not be compromised, in a way that the provisions that we arrive at through our talks will give the United States the satisfaction of what it seeks and will also provide the Afghan people the benefits that they are seeking through this partnership and the subsequent agreement.
In the press conference and joint statement, Obama looked like a man trying to ease America elegantly out of Afghanistan’s internal politics. US aims now look very narrow – something picked up by journalists at the press conference who asked about the rights of Afghan women and corruption, matters which used to be of concern in earlier presidencies. The words of the presidents were very telling.
Elections, said their statement would be ‘free, fair, inclusive, and democratic’. Note the word ‘inclusivity’ which is now being used as the metric for a good election; the level (or absence) of fraud, on the other hand, was not mentioned. The statement also said, ‘independent Afghan institutions are to lead election preparations and implementation, in close consultation with legitimate stakeholders in the democratic process.’ This looks like either a very indirect way of saying President Karzai/the government will not try to manipulate the outcome or that foreigners will not interfere. Note, Karzai also spoke of Afghanistan having, ‘the right environment for conducting elections without interference and without undue concern in that regard for the Afghan people.’ The joint statement also gave an assurance that the US will not support any candidate; this looked like a more direct response to Karzai’s concerns that it might.
As to what was once the ‘poster girl’ reason for the intervention – Afghan women’s rights, both presidents side-stepped. Asked whether Afghan women would suffer if there was a Taleban reconciliation, Karzai did not answer and Obama gave a lacklustre and rather hands off response:
Well, the United States has been very clear that any peace process, any reconciliation process must be Afghan led. It is not for the United States to determine what the terms of this peace will be. But what we have also been very clear about is that, from our perspective, it is not possible to reconcile without the Taliban renouncing terrorism, without them recognizing the Afghan constitution and recognizing that if there are changes that they want to make to how the Afghan government operates, then there is a orderly constitutional process to do that and that you can’t resort to violence.
The Afghan constitution protects the rights of Afghan women. And the United States strongly believes that Afghanistan cannot succeed unless it gives opportunity to its women. We believe that about every country in the world.(3)
The days of trying to tie US support, money, arms or troops to fraud-free elections or ending corruption or securing women’s rights are now long gone. However, judging by the apparent results of President Karzai’s visit to Washington, the final exit of the US from Afghanistan is not going to take place any time soon.
(*) See the joint statement here and and the transcript of the press conference here.
(1) ‘Permanent’ is here a weaselly word which leaves the option for the US to have bases for any time period less than eternity.
(2) President Karzai replied to a question on whether he had any sense of how many troops he would be willing to have:
That’s not for us to decide. It’s an issue for the United States. Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and, beyond, in the region. The specifics of numbers are issues that the military will decide, and Afghanistan will have no particular concern when we are talking of numbers and how they are deployed.
(3) This is how John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, read the two presidents’ statements on women’s rights (quoted from today’s New York Times):
The president [Obama] said several good things about the importance of women’s rights but very little about how the US and Afghanistan will ensure that negotiations [with the insurgents] will not endanger them. President Karzai, for his part, said nothing. [Except: Indeed, indeed.]
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020