Argument

Some Good News from Afghanistan

Some Good News from Afghanistan

The past month’s negative developments in Afghanistan — Quran burnings, misconduct by U.S. soldiers, sophisticated insurgent attacks, and stagnant talks with the Taliban – have overshadowed a recent notable positive development in U.S.-Afghan relations: The imminent conclusion of the strategic partnership agreement that pledges U.S. support for 10 years after the withdrawal of most of its troops and establish ground rules for the future of security cooperation between the two countries.

The two principal sticking points — night raids and U.S.-run prisons — have now been resolved. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration will soon brief Congress on the agreement and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will seek the approval of his Parliament. Barring a last-minute glitch, the agreement will be signed before or during the NATO summit in Chicago next month.

The agreement designates Afghanistan as a "major non-NATO ally," making the country eligible for a variety of defense-related benefits vis-à-vis the US. The US will guarantee financial support for sustaining Afghan security forces while guaranteeing Afghanistan’s security indefinitely. In exchange, Afghanistan will permit a U.S. military presence to remain in the country after 2014.

What that post-2014 presence will look like remains unclear. Most likely, the follow-on force will be comprised largely of Special Forces conducting counterterrorism operations. In the 12-month period following the signing of the agreement, U.S. and Afghan negotiators will try to address questions regarding the number of troops that will be allowed to stay, the type of missions they will pursue, and the legal immunity they will enjoy.

These negotiations could prove difficult. It was the issue of legal immunity for U.S. forces that ultimately derailed an agreement on keeping an American military presence in Iraq. Hostile Afghans and outside powers will try to use the negotiations to scuttle a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan as well.

Luckily, the political circumstances in Afghanistan are more favorable. Unlike Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his top officials, Karzai and most other Afghan leaders understand that the Afghan government will need to depend on U.S. military assistance for at least another decade. Notwithstanding his election-year rhetoric, Obama appears more interested in retaining a significant force in Afghanistan than he was in Iraq. Bases in Afghanistan are critical to targeting the al Qaeda leadership, which, while weakened, still operates from sanctuaries close to Afghan territory in Pakistan.

Besides laying the groundwork for a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, the agreement is potentially important for three reasons:

First, by resolving some of the most contentious issues in the U.S.-Afghan relationship, the agreement provides an opportunity for Obama and Karzai to reset relations and focus on building an enduring partnership between their countries. Relations between the two administrations have been in a state of crisis for the past three years. In recent weeks, the political distrust has seeped to the military-military level, culminating in the killing of several U.S. officers and soldiers at the hands of their Afghan colleagues. Popular support in the U.S. for the mission in Afghanistan has fallen to the lowest levels since 2001.

While several weeks of bad news was bound to decrease public support, Obama has exacerbated the problem. It has been more than a year since the president addressed the American people on the topic of Afghanistan — a missed opportunity to explain the importance of the mission and highlight the very real progress that the coalition is making. Although the United States has more than 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, Obama has not visited Kabul for some 18 months. The strategic partnership agreement is a significant achievement that the president should trumpet, ideally with a trip to the country.

In Afghanistan, the agreement is likely to bolster confidence in the country’s future, potentially curtailing the corruption that U.S.-Afghan tensions have fueled in recent months. Billions of dollars have left the country as government officials began to take precautions against the possibility of a cutoff in American support. Many Afghans also hedged their bets by reaching out to the Taliban and their outside supporters. The agreement, however, is only likely to produce lasting gains if the Karzai government and the U.S. team break the cycle of mutual recrimination and prioritize cooperation in tackling corruption. A cancer on the Afghan body politic, corruption perhaps more than any other problem, is hindering progress in promoting the rule of law.

The agreement could also encourage the Taliban to negotiate a settlement. Reports from Afghans who follow developments inside the Taliban suggest that Taliban leaders are divided on whether or not to pursue a peace deal with the Afghan government. Coalition military successes and tensions in the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan have encouraged some factions to seek a settlement. Other top Taliban leaders oppose negotiations, calculating that the impending U.S. withdrawal will shift the balance of power to their advantage, creating an opening for the movement to dominate Afghanistan again.

Negotiating a political settlement that is agreeable to the Taliban and Afghan government but also addresses core U.S. interests will not be easy. Divisions in Afghan society across ideological, ethnic, and sectarian lines have proven intractable in many ways. Regional players with influence among Afghan factions — China, India, Iran, and Russia, for example — are not on the same page. But the U.S.-Afghan agreement raises the cost for the Taliban of trying to wait out the clock, potentially presenting Washington and Kabul with an opportunity to secure greater Taliban buy-in for a negotiated settlement. To capitalize on the agreement, the United States will have to increase unilateral steps to restrain those who benefit from the status quo and are resisting a settlement.

Finally, the agreement could alter Islamabad’s attitude. Pakistan has not moved against insurgent sanctuaries on its territory, assuming that a U.S. withdrawal is imminent. In the event of renewed civil war in Afghanistan, Pakistan would have to rely on proxies such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network to counter forces backed by India and Russia. A strategy of supporting insurgents could begin to backfire for Pakistan if the American presence succeeds in hardening Afghan forces.

The strategic partnership agreement comes at a time when Pakistan may be reconsidering its Afghanistan strategy. In talks with U.S. and Afghan counterparts, Pakistani officials not only have been more candid about Islamabad’s links to the insurgency, I am told that in discussions with Americans and Afghans, they are emphasizing four points:

First, a Taliban victory in Afghan would not serve Pakistani interests, as it would create a possible sanctuary for the Pakistani Taliban. Second, Pakistani policy has produced resentment from both Afghans and insurgent proxies alike. Third, Pakistan is now willing to accommodate a longer-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan. And finally, the best outcome for Pakistan would be an inclusive Afghan government that does not pose a threat to Pakistan but can facilitate economic and regional cooperation.

Islamabad’s recent change in tone is worth testing, particularly in light of Pakistan’s severe financial problems. The country’s low reserves to cover imports, for example, provide the international community with significant leverage.

Washington should pursue talks on two tracks. The United States should negotiate directly with Pakistan on an Afghan settlement. At the same time, efforts to pursue dialogue with the Taliban should continue in coordination with Afghan leaders. The dialogue could expand to include Pakistan, provided that both Pakistani civilian and military leaders are willing to play a cooperative role. The Obama administration has largely embraced this option.

Washington also needs make a concerted, multilateral effort to incentivize cooperation from Pakistan. While recognizing that its policies jeopardize the flow of U.S. economic and military assistance it has received since 9/11, Islamabad believes that it has other options — China, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even Russia.

Washington should accelerate bilateral talks with regional powers that share its interest in precluding civil war, eliminating al Qaeda and other terrorist sanctuaries, and enabling a stable drawdown of international forces. The United States should seek an understanding with these states on the basic contours of an Afghan peace settlement and steps needed to move forward. Assuming a basic confluence of interest, the Obama administration should push to establish a multilateral forum on AfPak issues that could include India, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, key European states, and Japan.

U.S. leverage in Afghanistan is likely to decline in the coming years — a reality that makes it critical for the US to take advantage of the strategic partnership agreement. The key challenge in the next year is working with the Afghan government on tackling corruption, integrating the Taliban, and reaching an understanding with Pakistan. After a decade-long military campaign, prudent diplomacy could allow the United States to wind down the mission with its core interests secured.