Negotiations between Afghanistan and the United States over a Bilateral Security Agreement have reached to a crucial stage as the two sides are wrangling over some key terms of the pact that would allow presence of US forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014. American officials have renewed warnings that the delay for 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 for securing a security deal between Afghanistan and the US is facing hurdles as the wave of insurgency across Afghanistan is going on unabated and the US and its allied countries are preparing to withdraw the bulk of their troops from Afghanistan by end of next year. The negotiations were set to be concluded by this October and the negotiators have already crossed 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 on the Bilateral Security Agreement have yielded no progress to resolve the issues.
The Obama administration has many reasons for hurrying to conclude the agreement as quickly as possible. The US officials prefer to have signed the security agreement before the presidential campaign kicks off in Afghanistan. But more importantly, the United States is rushing to have a security pact with Afghanistan in place as soon as possible so that it could give the alliance sufficient time to prepare post-2014 plans and the NATO member countries commit to residual forces in Afghanistan after NATO mission ends in 2014. As Washington is insisting that the agreement should be signed before the election campaign begins in Afghanistan, the Afghan government has taken a harder stance towards the negotiations. Previously, the Afghan government abruptly suspended the talks in response to the US role in the opening of the Taliban 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 in signing the security pact are, most Afghan and the US officials acknowledge that the agreement is crucial for future of Afghanistan and in interests of both sides.
Afghanistan’s stance has been displayed as too uncooperative and inflexible when as Afghan officials have publicly defied the United States over the talks and the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement. In the past, President Hamid Karzai has used anti-US rhetoric in promoting its own political agendas both inside Afghanistan and against pressures from Afghanistan’s Western allies. Direct involvement of President Hamid Karzai does not seem to make any good to the talks unless the Afghan government reaches the conclusion to reach a deal with the US through wise negotiations rather than anti-US public rhetoric. And reaching an agreement requires compromises. Only such an approach would save the talks.
The diverging point in the talks is Afghanistan’s demand from the US to protect the country against any foreign aggressions, something the US does not seem to be prepared to accept. Despite Afghan officials’ justification that a foreign aggression does not mean involvement of tanks and troops rather the safe havens of the insurgent groups beyond the borders, the US is particularly wary of what such a term in the deal will mean to its relations with Pakistan. Whatever the status of US forces in Afghanistan post 2014, the US does not seem to be ready to include any term in the Bilateral Security Agreement that would threaten its ties with Pakistan. Pakistan has been a regional ally of the US during past decades, though an uneasy one during the last decade of the anti-terrorism war in Afghanistan.
However, 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 demanded some nine bases across Afghanistan, something the Afghan government seems to be open to agree on. But 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. Regarding another demand of the US, Afghanistan has signaled willingness to cooperate for immunity for US forces that would stay in post-2014 Afghanistan.
The negotiations are virtually in a stalemate now. The risks would much more serious for Afghanistan if the two sides fail to agree on a robust security deal. And most Afghan and American officials also agree that any failure in securing a deal with the US would be disastrous for Afghanistan. Given the implacable insurgency in Afghanistan and a resurgence of the Taliban ahead of the planned US withdrawal, any delay and hesitations from both sides in signing the bilateral security agreement is discordant to the efforts to save the mission in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Afghan security forces will need a sustained support from the US and NATO to be trained and equipped so that it would be able 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.