WASHINGTON and Kabul are close to finalising a strategic partnership agreement ensuring continued American military footprints in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Although the details are still to be worked out, the pact sends a strong message to Taliban insurgents and regional countries like Iran and Pakistan that the US is committed to a long-term presence in the war-torn country.
After months of wrangling, the two governments last week reached a draft agreement on the pact which is seen as an essential component of Washington’s Afghan exit strategy. It promises continuing US support for Afghanistan for 10 years after the planned withdrawal of most of the foreign troops from the country by December 2014.
Several important details including exactly how many American troops would remain and what amount the US would contribute to maintaining Afghanistan’s own security forces are still to be negotiated before the pact is formalised. American officials are confident that the process could be completed before a Nato summit conference in Chicago in the third week of May.
While the pact is important for the US to redefine its role in Afghanistan as it starts drawing down troops, it also reassures America’s Afghan allies that they would not be abandoned in the face of any Taliban attempt to take over.
The long-term US commitment to Afghanistan may also help other western coalition partners to come on board. But there are many questions about the sustainability of long-term financial and security pledges by the allied countries given their own worsening economic situation and growing war weariness as the Afghan conflict enters its second decade.
There has not yet been a firm commitment of contributions from the US and other western countries. An estimated $4bn will be required annually to maintain the Afghan security forces as well as to keep the country economically viable.
Some analysts argue that the strategic partnership is more symbolic than substantive as it does not clearly lay out the nature of future cooperation between the US and Kabul regime. Then there is also the question of whether this partnership could prop up a weak government deeply mired in corruption and reluctant to reform itself.
Predictably, the agreement has provoked strong reaction from the Taliban who had been insisting on the complete withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. In a detailed statement issued soon after the draft agreement, the Taliban accused the US of trying to establish “an army hostile to Islam that protects the western interest”.
Many American officials believe the pact could be used to bring the insurgents under pressure and force them to accept terms for peace. But the Taliban’s reaction indicates more defiance than conciliation. The agreement in fact could stall any hope of resumption of talks between the Taliban and US officials.
The Taliban had suspended the Qatar negotiations a month ago accusing the US of not fulfilling the promise of releasing their five leaders detained at Guantanamo Bay. The killing of 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children by an American soldier in Kandahar some weeks ago, had also contributed to the stalling of talks.
A senior American official involved in the negotiations conceded that there was no sign yet of the Taliban returning to negotiations soon. The recent coordinated attacks in Kabul and other Afghan cities indicate that the Taliban are better equipped and more organised.
For the regional countries too the lasting presence of the American forces in Afghanistan may not be acceptable. Iran, Pakistan, China and Russia had expressed their reservation on the suggestion in the past.
Although no decision has been taken yet, there is a strong indication that the number of US troops to remain in Afghanistan after December 2014 could be anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 depending on the situation. They include not only trainers, but also the special forces to help Afghan security forces in the field.
The long-term US military presence could make it more difficult to reach an agreement by the regional countries which is critical to the winding down of the decade-long Afghan war. Perhaps, a smaller number of US troops for a short-term period would be acceptable to neighbouring countries.
The continuing chill in US-Pakistan relations also cast a huge shadow over the Afghan endgame. It has been over three weeks since the Pakistani parliament set out guidelines redefining the terms of engagement with the US, but very little headway has been made in getting the fractured relationship back on track.
Further complications have emerged after the recent coordinated attacks in Afghanistan allegedly mounted by the Haqqani network when dozens of attackers penetrated the security cordon to strike at seven secured targets.
Some US intelligence officials alleged that the Pakistani military is now actively backing and arming the network. This is the most serious allegation since Adm Mullen’s statement last year that the Haqqanis were a “veritable arm” of the ISI.
It has also given the US administration an excuse for further delaying the apology for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in last November’s Salala attack. The incident and the initial reluctance of the US to offer an apology has been the major cause of breakdown in relations between the two countries.
Similarly, the delay in reopening the Nato supply line is another issue impeding the restoration of ties. It has become increasingly difficult for the Pakistani government now to open the ground communication line without an apology. Meanwhile, the invitation to President Zardari to participate in the Nato summit meeting in Chicago this month also hinges on the reopening of the supply route.
The writer is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre, Washington D.C.