The South Asia Channel

Promises, promises: The U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership

President Obama’s surprise speech in Kabul on May 1 was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance. Much of the agreement echoed the language and intent of the earlier 2005 Strategic Partnership ...

Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images
Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images

President Obama’s surprise speech in Kabul on May 1 was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.

Much of the agreement echoed the language and intent of the earlier 2005 Strategic Partnership Agreement. Both agreements sought to reassure the Afghans of the United States’ staying power, and articulate broad principles on which the bilateral relationship rests. They are both "executive agreements," which lack the power of formal treaties ratified by the Senate.  To that extent, the agreements are like cotton candy:  pleasant, fluffy, but easily torn apart. That may explain why the Afghans, having the 2005 agreement in hand, felt the need to pursue further reassurances once Bush left office.

According to some reports, the Afghans were looking for a full-fledged mutual defense treaty.  Such a treaty would have obligated the United States to treat an attack on Afghanistan as an attack on itself.  If so, the Afghans are surely disappointed, but they were also unrealistic in their hopes.  It is difficult to envision Americans accepting a defense treaty obligating American intervention in South Asia in perpetuity when most no longer welcome our actual intervention in Afghanistan to fight a war that two presidents have argued is vital to our national security. The Afghans probably got the strongest expression of support possible in the current U.S. political climate.

The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is this:  "The Unites States shall designate Afghanistan a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally.’" The Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) designation was created by Congress in 1989 as a way of identifying America’s major strategic partners without the burdensome requirements of a formal treaty.  It confers a range of benefits, including participation in U.S. Defense Department research and development projects, preferential access to U.S. military surplus supplies, the use of U.S. loans to finance weapons purchases, and expedited applications for space technology exports.  More importantly, the designation has a powerful symbolic value: it is a public affirmation of a country’s affiliation with the United States, a global badge of American approval.  Although the designation does not technically carry a security guarantee or legally obligate the United States to come to the defense of a designee, the label of "ally" implies as much. Only 14 states and Taiwan have been given the MNNA status.

Critics may argue that MNNA status is merely symbolic, but symbols are important.  Afghanistan is now in the same category as Japan, Australia, Israel, and Pakistan. And the agreement goes beyond the symbolic, stipulating that the United States will train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces "consistent with NATO standards and [will] promote interoperability with NATO forces." To cement relations between the newly-minted "allies," the Agreement commits the United States to negotiating a Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan over the next year, and the administration is also initiating talks on a Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA) and a defense cooperation memorandum of understanding (the timing allows the Obama administration to delay decisions on difficult issues like detentions and night raids until after the election).

Collectively, these provisions communicate a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration’s various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission. In a best-case scenario, in ten years or so the Afghan Army could become one of the key developing-world partners and force-multipliers for U.S. and Western military forces in contingency and peacekeeping operations. Afghanistan could become the next Bangladesh, providing the manpower for peacekeeping missions that Western nations are willing to fund but not man, in exchange for which the Afghans get valuable operational experience and funding. (The Agreement won’t, however, be a help in any future U.S.-Iran war, as it expressly prohibits the U.S. from using Afghan territory to attack another country. The clause, reflecting an understandable concern by the Afghans, may also complicate the U.S.’s ability to attack terrorist targets inside Pakistan).

Of course, these assurances only matter if Kabul defeats the Taliban insurgency, a topic on which the Agreement is oddly silent. The Agreement affirms the joint goal of defeating "al-Qaeda and its affiliates," the closest it comes to referring to the Taliban. There is vague language restating the long-standing reconciliation policy-that unspecified "individuals and entities" must sever ties with al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept the constitution-but fails to identify at whom the policy is aimed. The United States just pledged a decade’s worth of security cooperation to a country in the middle of a civil war, but managed to avoid talking about the civil war.

The silence is probably calculated to protect the Strategic Partnership in the event the Taliban join the government following a negotiated peace. Kabul and Washington can claim that the Agreement is not aimed at the Taliban, who therefore have nothing to fear from it. In other words, out of fear of what the Taliban might do in a hypothetical future scenario, the Americans and Afghans gave them a seat at the negotiating table in the Strategic Partnership talks, effectively rewarding them for their threat of continued violence. This is a poor negotiating strategy. Instead, the Agreement should have identified the Taliban, committed the parties explicitly to its defeat, and only then reiterated the reconciliation policy.

The Agreement has other weaknesses.  For example, it commits Afghanistan to providing the United States with continued access to military facilities through 2014 "and beyond as may be agreed," needlessly requiring Kabul and Washington to re-negotiate access to Afghan facilities again in two years. The 2005 agreement contained no expiration date on American access to Afghan facilities (like Bagram and Kandahar air fields), a much simpler arrangement that still respected Afghan sovereignty under the obvious understanding that the Afghans could ask the United States to leave at any time.

Similarly, the Agreement pledges the United States to "seek funds on a yearly basis" for Afghan assistance, a weak and unenforceable clause. The Agreement failed to commit the United States even to an aspirational target of financial aid to Afghanistan. For example, the United States could have promised to seek at least $2 billion per year for security assistance and $1 billion per year for civilian assistance, which would have afforded a small amount of protection for Afghan aid after 2014, when donor fatigue and Congressional inattention set in.

The most troubling aspect of the agreement, mirroring the overall weakness of the Obama administration’s Afghan policy, is the evident imbalance between the military and civilian aspects of U.S. engagement there. For years, the United States has invested massively in building up the Afghan Army and police but comparatively little in building the Afghan government. The result is a strong Afghan Army and a weak Afghan state, a highly unstable and dangerous combination.  If the Afghan Army ever successfully defeats the Taliban, it could itself suddenly become the greatest threat to Afghan national security.

The new agreement only perpetuates this unhelpful dynamic. After several pages detailing U.S.-Afghan security cooperation and a decent section on economic assistance, it contains a brief, vague, throw-away section on governance. Afghanistan promises to improve itself, and the United States promises to help, with no details, no promise of new resources, and no promise of training up to international standards. The one or two solid ideas regarding governance in the agreement-that the U.S. will channel more of its aid through the Afghan government, and align its aid to Afghan priorities-may be unachievable precisely because the capacity of Afghan institutions continues to lag and suffer from endemic corruption.  Compared to the detailed, specific, and increasingly dense U.S.-Afghan security partnership, the U.S.-Afghan governance partnership is almost non-existent. The United States risks replicating the same error in Afghanistan that characterized U.S. policy towards Pakistan for the last six decades.

Nonetheless, as a whole, the new U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership is a strong signal of enduring American commitment to help one of the world’s most failed states, and secure American interests in South Asia.  After more than ten years of effort with halting progress and fragile, reversible gains, such commitment is welcome.  The partnership is arguably one of Obama’s best achievements on Afghan policy (after the 2009 military surge), and showed some political courage considering the increasing unpopularity of the war among the American electorate, especially in his own political base.  The very fact that there is a strategic partnership agreement will help to buy time for Obama, or his successor, to improve on its weaknesses in 2014 and beyond.  That will go a long way to upholding America’s promise to the Afghans.

Dr. Paul D. Miller is an Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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