Negotiations between Afghanistan and the United States over a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) have reached a crucial stage as the two sides are wrangling over key terms of the pact that would allow presence of US forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014. American officials have renewed warnings that the delay in reaching a timely agreement on the future status of the US military in Afghanistan could jeopardize the deal altogether. According to the reports, Afghan and US negotiators have failed to resolve some key issues during their talks over the security pact, and that the Afghan president Hamid Karzai has become involved in the last series of negotiations.
The negotiations were set to be concluded by this October and the negotiators have already missed the deadline set by US President Barack Obama. Still, the two sides seem to be far from agreeing on some sticking points of the deal and the latest rounds of talks have yielded no progress to resolve the issues.
The Obama administration has many reasons for hurrying to conclude the agreement. The US officials prefer to sign the agreement before the presidential campaign kicks off in Afghanistan. But more importantly, the U.S. desire for an early pact is aimed at giving the alliance sufficient time to prepare post-2014 plans and the NATO member countries commit to residual forces in Afghanistan after NATO mission ends next year. As Washington is insisting that the agreement should be signed before the election campaign begins in Afghanistan, the Afghan government has taken a harder line. Previously, the Afghan government abruptly suspended the talks in response to the U.S. role in the opening of the Taliban’s Qatar office.
The deadlock over some key terms of the deal is continued as Afghanistan is inching toward a presidential election schedule and the nomination process for the race has already begun with some presidential candidates registered with the Independent Election Commission (IEC). The US fears that the election campaigns in Afghanistan and politicization of the Bilateral Security Agreement between Kabul and Washington may derail a smooth process of the negotiations which has been handled carefully to this point. Whatever the reasons for the delay may be, most Afghan and the US officials acknowledge that the agreement is crucial for future of Afghanistan and is in the interest of both sides.
Afghanistan’s has displayed too uncooperative and inflexible stance as Afghan officials have publicly defied the United States over the talks. In the past, President Hamid Karzai has used anti-US rhetoric in promoting his own political agenda both inside Afghanistan and against pressures from his Western allies. Direct involvement of President Karzai may not make things any good unless the Afghan government make efforts for deal, leaving aside its public anti-US rhetoric. And reaching an agreement requires compromises. Only such an approach would save the talks.
One of the diverging points in the talks is Afghanistan’s demand that the US protect the country against any foreign aggressions, something the US does not seem to be prepared to accept. Afghan officials clarify that a foreign aggression does not mean involvement of tanks and troops on the ground, rather it means going after the safe havens of the insurgent groups beyond its borders. The US is particularly wary of what such a term in the deal will mean to its relations with Pakistan. The US does not seem to be ready to include any term in the agreement that would threaten its relations with Pakistan. Islamabad has been a regional ally of the US during past decades, though an uneasy one during the last decade.
There are also some other key differences between the two sides. One is the scope of operation of US forces after 2014 and their bases across the country. The Afghan government has said the US has demanded some nine bases across Afghanistan, something the Afghan government seems to be open to agree to. But what remains a source of contention is the nature of operation of US forces after 2014; whether they should keep fighting the Taliban or limit their strikes to Al-Qaeda targets. The Afghan government and the US have long been at loggerheads over military strikes carried out by US forces that in some cases resulted to civilian deaths. While the US prefers to preserve the right to military strike as conditions demand, Afghanistan is pressing for more control over the operations of the residual US forces. Afghanistan has signaled willingness to cooperate on the U.S. demand for immunity for U.S. forces that would stay in post-2014 Afghanistan.
The negotiations are virtually in a stalemate now. The risks are much more serious for Afghanistan if the two sides fail to agree on a robust security deal. Most Afghan and American officials agree that any failure in securing a deal would be disastrous for Afghanistan. Given the implacable insurgency and a resurgence of the Taliban ahead of the planned US withdrawal, any delay and hesitation from both sides in signing the agreement will be discordant to the efforts to save the mission in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Afghan security forces will need a sustained support from the U.S. and NATO to effectively fight the insurgency after the US withdrawal. With no peace deal with the insurgents in sight and the Taliban waiting for withdrawal of foreign forces, Afghanistan cannot afford failing the BSA talks and repeating what happened in Iraq.
An unedited version of this article appeared in Outlook Afghanistan, a leading daily of Afghanistan. Click here to go to the original.