Image: Flickr/ The U.S. Army, CC licence
Image: Flickr/ The U.S. Army, CC licence

Here to stay

A strategic US-Afghan pact looks to guarantee US presence until 2024, but crucial details remain undecided or unclear.
Image: Flickr/ The U.S. Army, CC licence
Image: Flickr/ The U.S. Army, CC licence

After months of strenuous negotiations and drama, earlier this week Afghanistan and the United States agreed on the draft of the much touted Strategic Partnership Agreement. The Agreement basically states the US will continue to support the war-torn country until 2024. Beyond that unsurprising remark, the agreement scrupulously avoids contentious issues in US-Afghan relations, leaving those for future negotiation. US Ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker and Afghan National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta initialled the text of the long-term agreement on Sunday.

The agreement must now pass through both countries' processes of internal review. In Afghanistan, it must be approved by the country's National Assembly, which comprises both the upper and the lower house. On Monday afternoon, Spanta and Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul briefed Afghanistan's parliament and senate. For the US, it means interagency review, possible consultation with the US Congress (not to be confused with an approval) and a final review by US President Barack Obama.

Officially called the 'Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement', the pact will broadly outline – but without specifics or concrete commitments – American support for Afghanistan, including military and financial aid, beyond the slated withdrawal of NATO and allied forces in 2014. According to officials, the agreement will also cover social and economic development, security issues, the strengthening of Afghan institutions, good governance and regional cooperation. The agreement is set to expire at the end of 2024, but upon mutual agreement it can be extended in its final six months, or nullified at any time. 

All foreign governments and groups involved with the Afghan government would like the agreement to be signed before the NATO Summit in Chicago this May, where the handover of responsibilities to the Afghan government will be high on the agenda. A formal announcement of the agreement could be made at the event, since there is unlikely to be any other noteworthy declaration from the US or its NATO allies. 

Negotiations leading up to the finalised draft were intense to say the least. Afghan President Hamid Karzai bypassed the parliament and instead called a constitutional Loya Jirga, or grand council, of hand-picked tribal elders who approved his plan concerning the handover of NATO-run prisons and putting an end to US night raid operations. At times, the negotiations came close to crumbling, with a series of recent mistakes by US forces aggravating tensions. A video showing US marines urinating on Taliban corpses surfaced in January. Then in February, the burning of copies of the Quran by US troops inside Bagram airbase ignited violent protests that saw more than three dozen killed, including six US troops who were shot by an Afghan soldier. In March, a US sergeant allegedly went on a shooting rampage near Kandahar, killing 17 Afghan civilians. Geopolitical friction with Iran and Pakistan further complicated matters, as both Afghan neighbours are vehemently opposed to continued US presence. Even the US Ambassador reportedly admitted that he had never encountered a tougher negotiation.

Stormy horizon
Before the pact could see fruition, in the last two months the US had to agree to two key Afghan pre-conditions: that US-run prisons be handed over to Afghan management, and that any future night raids be led by Afghan special forces. Spanta, Karzai's main representative at the negotiations who almost resigned over his president's uncompromising stance, said the deal with the US was "extremely important for long-term stability in Afghanistan."

Whether this is true remains to be seen, especially as the content of the agreement are still under wraps. It is clear, however, that issues over US military bases in Afghanistan and the number and legal status of US soldiers after 2014 – a serious thorn to some – are not mentioned in the agreement. According to Spanta, the operation, control and responsibilities of US military installations will all be discussed in an altogether separate security agreement within a year of signing this latest agreement. It is worth recalling that the US withdrew all its forces from Iraq last year after the Nouri al-Maliki government opposed immunity for American soldiers.

Yet while this agreement is largely symbolic, that is not to say it serves no purpose. The agreement does not specify what non-military programs the US will support, how much aid Afghanistan can expect to receive, or what role the US military will have after 2014. Still, the pact does allude to a long-term commitment meant to show that there will be no repeat of the 1990s, when the US abandoned Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, precipitating a brutal civil war followed by the ascent of the Taliban. It also sends message to Pakistan, and especially to Iran, that Afghanistan's neighbours should remain at a distance. Spanta did, however, try to calm Afghanistan's neighbours by saying that the agreement will not be a threat to any country in the region, as the US "will not be allowed to attack any country from Afghanistan."

The pact also sends a very strong signal to the resilient Taliban that they cannot wait out the US presence and orchestrate a comeback. After the announcement that a draft agreement had been finalised, the Taliban issued a strong condemnation, accusing the US of attempting to secure Central Asian and Caspian oil fields, and of preventing a true Islamic movement by promoting secularism and establishing an Afghan army that protects Western interests and remains hostile to Islam.

One of the Taliban's main demands, in rhetoric at least, has been a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan. While they have suspended (though not conclusively rejected) talks with the Americans, any agreement on long-term US engagement in Afghanistan could well impede any possible peace negotiations with the Taliban.

~ Subel Bhandari is the Kabul bureau chief for dpa (German Press Agency). He has been based in Afghanistan since 2010. Follow him on twitter @svbel

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