Presidents Obama and Karzai are due to start the wrangling over their countries’ post-2014 military relationship during the Afghan president’s current visit to Washington. US soldiers, bases, training, equipment, money, immunity all need to be hammered out, although no-one is expecting results just yet. Figures floated in recent days by US government and military officials speak of plans for anything from 20,000 to zero US troops to be left behind after 2014. Talk of the ‘zero option’ on troops might just be a bargaining ploy to put pressure on President Karzai, although as AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, reports, it needs taking seriously, as does the possibility of a ‘zero plus’ option, ie a full withdrawal of troops which would still leave intelligence agents and military contractors fighting the Taleban.
In recent days, the numbers of US troops which could be left behind in Afghanistan after 2014 in the context of a new bilateral strategic agreement have shrunk. Press reporting (here and here) has suggested that the ISAF/US military commander, General John Allen, had wanted 20,000 troops deployed after 2014, but the White House had demanded options for far fewer – 3-9,000 troops. On 8 January 2013, the US deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the White House was considering all options, including leaving no troops behind after 2014 at all, a possibility first aired by AAN just over a year ago after a particularly harsh batch of comments about the US by President Karzai in his ‘Afghans are lions’ speech in which he assumed Washington would be willing to do almost anything to stay in Afghanistan.(1)
That the zero option is now being taken seriously is due to a number of factors. Enthusiasm for the war in every troop-deploying country has waned markedly including in the US. Eleven years into the conflict, many populations no longer believe their governments’ lines that fighting in Afghanistan helps secure their streets from terrorism. What, many ask, is the point of continuing the Afghan war, given, not only the huge cost at a time of economic hardship, but also the press stories about Afghan government corruption and attacks by Afghan and police on their international ‘comrades’, the so-called green-on-blue attacks. The latter has already led, this year, to severe restrictions on the international training and mentoring of Afghan forces.
Moreover, the crucial relationship underpinning post-2001 Afghanistan – between President Karzai and the US – has remained prickly over precisely the issues which the two sides have to bargain over. The agreement will not just be a question of how many US soldiers, but whether the US will still control bases and how much kit and money the US will give Afghanistan. It must deal with whether the US military will be able to detain and hold Afghans suspected of participating in the insurgency, an issue which has been the cause of much anger and upset (see our reporting here and here) and with whether US soldiers and military contractors continue to be exempt from prosecution under the Afghan criminal justice system if they commit crimes.
For the Americans, many of these sticking points revolve around how to effectively fight the Taleban and – as they see it – protect their personnel. For the Afghans, they are matters of national sovereignty. This is what makes the bargaining so difficult.
Nuanced positions have come from within the group of senior Afghans already involved in the negotiations. One told AAN they need to flesh out exactly what the US wants and what it is prepared to offer: immunity, for example, he said, could not be ‘theoretical’, but would have to emerge out of discussions on the number of soldiers wanted by the US and their tasks, the role of contractors and so on. However, immunity is known to be a red line for the Americans – not securing it meant no security agreement, as earlier on with Iraq, and President Karzai has also already warned that immunity might be refused. In October 2012, he said he had told the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that the Afghan people might, ‘not permit their government to grant immunity… if the war and insecurities continue in Afghanistan, Afghan borders are not protected, and the immunity for foreign forces comes on top of these issues.’ (quote from AFP here; also see report in ToloNews here). However, in December, the President indicated it might be granted in return for certain ‘guarantees’ (read here).
Then there are the sort of comments which suggest a hard-line will be taken in the bargaining (and which deeply angered the US government), such as recently from the president’s chief of staff, Abdul Karim Khorram, that, ‘The world needs us more than we need them.’
In Afghanistan, opinion is very much mixed on whether compromises to national sovereignty should be made and whether foreign forces should still be here. (See some extracts from Afghanistan’s leading newspapers at the end of this blog.(2)
However, there may be other questions to be asked about whether the ‘zero option’ would actually mean a zero US presence. Ways of waging wars are evolving apace and in ways which make military boots on the ground less crucial than they used to be, as the former head of US military forces in Afghanistan, General David Barno, made clear in an article in Foreign Policy in which he looked at what could still be done if the ‘zero option’ was taken:
The United States has powerful remote intelligence, surveillance, and strike capabilities that could only be dreamed of in the 1990s. These capabilities increasingly can be employed from “stand-off” distances, with a few flying from as far as the United States. Some of these capabilities require regional basing, but Afghanistan is not the only country that can provide low-visibility basing options. Drones have changed the face of warfare, and used in concert with U.S. intelligence into remote areas, they are increasingly lethal to terrorists.
Eleven years of extensive quiet intelligence efforts partnered with Afghans (and Pakistanis) have created a deep web of friendly contacts that will be maintained long after 2014. In some ways, the post-2014 environment in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area could evolve into a prolonged “intelligence war,” with hundreds of U.S. operatives and billions of covert dollars invested in preventing further terrorist attacks on the United States. Given its vital importance, this undertaking will endure — regardless of the size of the residual U.S. military presence.
Much of what the US does militarily in Afghanistan is already carried out by non-army personnel. The CIA plays a role in the fighting – not just gathering intelligence and operating drones (the use of which, by the way rose in Afghanistan in the last year – see here), but also, for example, working closely with the NDS, the Afghan intelligence service, with US Special Operations Forces and with irregular, anti-Taleban militias like the Kandahar Strike Force and the Afghan Security Guards which operate in Loya Paktia. (I call them militias because they appear not to have an Afghan chain of command through the Ministry of Defence or Interior.) Some of the nastier allegations of war crimes have been attached to them (see reporting here, here and here).
The US military also outsources many aspects of its fighting: logistics, procurement, catering, construction and even intelligence gathering. The Department of Defence’s last quarterly report on contractors, published in November 2012 (https://www.acq.osd.mil/log/PS/CENTCOM_reports.html) gives an indication of the range of services they provide in Afghanistan:
* Theatre Support: 16,973 (15%)
* LOGCAP (Logistics Civil Augmentation Program): 40,551 (37%)
* U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: 7,647 (7%)
* other (includes Defence Logistics Agency, Army Materiel Command, Air Force External and Systems Support contracts, Special Operations Command and INSCOM (the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command): 44,393 (41%)
It is worth noting these services include support to US Special Operations Forces (SOF) and Army Intelligence. The same report said the ratio of soldiers to US Department of Defence-hired contractors was 1:1.3. In other words, there are fewer soldiers posted to Afghanistan than contractors, of which there are 109,564, a total which splits into rough thirds of US, Afghans and third country nationals. These statistics do not count those indirectly hired or those contracted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), CIA, State Department and the rest of the dozen or so civilian agencies. Nor does it include those contracted by other countries.(3)
All this means that in looking at any agreement on boots on the ground reached for post-2014, one will likely end up with more total personnel than just the army numbers. However, it could also mean that a zero option might still leave a lot of contractors paid for by the Pentagon on the ground helping with the anti-Taleban war effort.
It is worth noting here how much effort the US SOF has put into working with and building up the 7000 strong and growing Afghan Special Forces and the Afghan Local Police as anti-Taleban forces. All Afghan and international special forces in Afghanistan were put under a unified command led by a US general in July (see our guest blog for a lot of detail on this). That command is now, according to the website Wired housed by the company formerly known as Blackwater, now re-named Academi (famous among other things for its security guards killing 17 Iraqis in 2007 while protecting a State Department convoy in circumstances which were highly dubious – see reporting here, here and here). Wired reports that it was given a 22 million dollar, no-bid contract, to host the new joint special forces command at a site near Kabul airport. It notes that the contract goes through to May 2015.
When writing about the new joint command in October, AAN’s guest blogger, Gary Owen, also asked readers to bear in mind that the groundwork for future cooperation the different special forces is currently being laid and it goes against the principal of transition:
International SOF (particularly the Americans, who are most closely involved in the training of their Afghan SOF counterparts) are closely involved in the training of their Afghan SOF counterparts [and] work very hard to establish close relationships with their trainees, as that bond will be essential for successfully carrying out combined special operations in the future. Consequently, there exists an esprit de corps based on a shared sense of professionalism and competency that is levels above their conventional counterparts. Afghan SOF, due to the nature of the selection process, are more motivated, better trained, and more inclined to want to execute operations that they perceive as fighting the enemies of Afghanistan.
Whatever the number of US troops left behind, if more of the war is left in the hands of the CIA and military contractors, there will be major problems with accountability. Afghan civilians and MPs and journalists can currently go to ISAF, which also answers questions about the largely SOF ‘anti-terrorism’ mission, Operation Enduring Freedom). They can demand answers about, for example, civilian casualties. Once ISAF goes, who will answer for the SOF? The CIA does have an ‘address’ in Afghanistan (the old Ariana Hotel in Shashdarak, near the presidential palace), but ordinary people cannot go there as it is in the heart of the cordoned-off area of the capital and the CIA does not hold press conferences. As for the private contractors, they are even more distant and less accountable. Moreover, we know what training soldiers get on the Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Armed Conflict – but no-one knows what CIA agents or private intelligence contractors are taught. Yet they are also involved in targeted killing among other acts of war.(4)
As the bargaining goes on at the highest levels between Afghanistan and the US, whatever happens, it looks unlikely the contractors will be out of pocket any time soon. In an article in Vanity Fair looking at real estate in the ‘narco-palaces’ of Sherpur, the author finds demand and rents falling. He asks who might possibly want to rent one house with a rent of $50,000:
With so many people leaving, who might be moving in? ‘Blackwater’s coming; that’s about it,’ said my guide, referring to the security firm now called Academi.
Read our guest blogger Gary Owen’s analysis on his website here: ‘Afghanistan Zero: tastes just like regular Afghanistan, but with fewer troops’.
(1) President Karzai told delegates of a loya jirga convened to discuss a possible security agreement with the US that:
Afghanistan is ready to sign strategic agreement with the United States, which is to our benefit. They bring us money; train our soldiers and police, and provide security for the home of the lion. The lion does not have leisure time to do all these things. They should protect his surroundings but should not touch the lion’s home. They should protect the four boundaries of the jungle. They should train our police, America’s assistances will be beneficial to Afghanistan, as will be of the West and other countries.
(2) Afghan reporting on Karzai’s visit to the USA (from BBC Monitoring):
Hasht-e Sobh (independent):
President Hamed Karzai is to meet US President Barack Obama today in the White House. Afghan and US officials describe this meeting as important and strategic… In fact this meeting and its outcomes will shape the foundation of relations between Afghanistan and the USA in the decade of transformation [2014-2025]… There are serious differences between the two sides indeed… but it is not to the advantage of either to politicize the differences. The two countries’ officials should not give interviews with the media and to make their differences public. Experience has shown that this method is a failure and it hurts interests of both sides.
The Daily Afghanistan (private):
This is the first visit by President Karzai to the USA in President Obama’s second term… The people of Afghanistan and the world hope this visit and meeting will be a beginning for devising specific and transparent security and political strategies and a new chapter for continued cooperation between the two countries. They hope that real and lasting peace and security is ensured in Afghanistan in the light of these strategies and cooperation to rescue the Afghan people and the world from these profound security and psychological concerns.
Arman-e Melli (close to National Union of Journalists of Afghanistan):
Afghanistan and America are on the verge of signing a security pact which is very vital and crucial for our people and country… At a time when we feel proud of the capabilities of our security forces and are confident about it, we warn that these forces need support of the international forces to enable them confront the Taleban and their supporters in the war against terror. Therefore, the signing of security pact is of great value for our country and it should be signed as soon as possible.
According to experts, it is not only the size and nature of the US forces’ military activities in Afghanistan after 2014 which is unclear and a matter of concern in the security pact, the main thing is the judicial immunity of criminal US forces, which can produce wide social and security consequences… If the Karzai administration, unilaterally agrees with the unconventional presence of the US troops in Afghanistan after 2014, regardless to the people’s resolve, our religious and national values and regional sensitivities, he will be responsible for all hostile activities, casualties and destructions which will be caused by the rebels…
President Hamed Karzai set off yesterday for an important visit to the USA. In fact it is an important visit both for the president and the Afghan nation… We hope the president will take a stance as a real Muslim and Afghan in this situation and make a name for himself so that he and the nation could feel proud of it in the future and he should not take a stance to become a historic blot on his reputation. The ! Afghans have warmly welcomed poverty and destitution in the course of history, but they have never let their reputation to be damaged and it is their main particularity.
Also see some parliamentary reaction to the ‘zero option’ here.
(3) Here a comment about another ‘zero option’: According to Tageszeitung (published in Berlin on 10 January 2012), ‘up to now, there are still 100,000 “US contractors” in Iraq (and a further 40,000 from other NATO member-countries),’ despite the, ‘full withdrawal’ announced by the US government in 2011.’
And Spencer Ackerman, an analyst for the already quoted website Wired answers the question ‘So in your estimation, is the war actually over?’ about Iraq as follows:
It’s going to shift into a more sotto voce form. It’s going to be a lot subtler. But it most certainly is continuing. Just because we don’t have a U.S. troop presence anymore or a formal U.S. chain of command anymore, does not mean that the war is over.
(4) Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions from 2004 until 2010 and now professor of law at New York University covers some of these issues in his masterly paper, ‘The CIA and Targeted Killings Beyond Borders’.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020