It is refreshing that Afghanistan has put behind its electoral crisis and come up with an improvised government structure for its stalled political transition. Presence of President Mamnoon Hussain during President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural ceremony was reflective of Pakistan’s endorsement of this political arrangement. On the following day, bilateral security agreement (BSA) was signed to formalize the future contour of Afghanistan’s military transition. Iran and Pakistan have posted cautious response towards BSA, while Taliban have vehemently opposed it. “As an independent country, based on our national interests, we signed this agreement for stability, goodwill, and prosperity of our people, stability of the region and the world…These agreements do not pose any threat to our neighboring countries.” Ghani said in a speech after the signing ceremony.
Pakistan has ‘tacitly’ endorsed the BSA as a fait accompli. This is a clear departure from its earlier stance that long-term presence of foreign forces in its backyard could have far-reaching implications for the region. Foreign Office spokesperson said “Afghanistan is a sovereign country and an elected government there is well within its right to sign such agreements.” The US Ambassador Richard Olson met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a day after the conclusion of BSA and assured him that the BSA would not hurt Pakistan’s interests.
Iran fears that Afghanistan could be used as a launching pad for intervention in its affairs, as well as a potential pressure card against its ongoing negotiations with the P5+1. However, it is expected that Tehran will cooperate with the new Afghan government and reconcile with the BSA as long as new government’s policies do not constitute a threat to Iranian core interests.
Taliban have denounced the pact calling it a ‘sinister’ plot by the United States to control Afghanistan and restore its international credibility as a military superpower. “Under the name of the security agreement, today Americans want to prepare themselves for another non-obvious and very dangerous fight,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said. “We will try in Sharia court and punish all those who have signed the BSA as we had done with such people in the past…as they acted like American-paid employees.” He further said that “signing of the BSA would not stop the Taliban from their ‘sacred jihad’ as they would fight until all Americans and foreigners withdraw from Afghanistan.”
The BSA is a loosely worded document that would allow absorption of all sorts of interpretations and reinterpretations of the text. It shall become effective on January 1, 2015 and shall remains in force until the end of 2024 and beyond unless it is terminated by the either side with two years’ prior notice. The document does not establish how many US troops can be in Afghanistan during that time; earlier President Obama had announced in May that there would be only 9,800 soldiers after December 31. He also said that number would decrease rapidly by being halved at the end of 2015 and reduced to only a vestigial force by end of 2016. A similar agreement with NATO allows 4,000 to 5,000 additional troops to stay in Afghanistan in a noncombat role after 2014.
The US forces’ mission under the BSA includes advising, training, equipping and sustaining ANSF. It states that “unless otherwise mutually agreed, United States forces shall not conduct combat operations in Afghanistan.” Instead, the emphasis is upon supporting the Afghan forces, sharing intelligence, and strengthening Afghanistan’s air force capabilities. It also stresses that “US military counterterrorism operations are intended to complement and support” those of the Afghan government.
The BSA states that Kabul “agrees that the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction” over US soldiers who commit “any criminal or civil offenses” in Afghanistan. Washington commits only to keeping Kabul informed “if requested” of the progress of US criminal proceedings against soldiers accused of crimes and to making efforts so that representatives of Afghanistan can attend or observe the proceedings in US military courts. However, the BSA does give Afghanistan jurisdiction over “United States’ contractors and such contractors’ employees.”
BSA does not directly commit the US to defending Afghanistan against a third state; however, the text does imply a tacit proviso: Washington “shall regard with grave concern any external aggression or threat of external aggression.” And in such case Washington and Kabul would work together to develop “an appropriate response,” including considering political, military, and economic measures.
The BSA authorizes US forces to maintain existing facilities and undertake new constructions so long as they are agreed upon by both sides. While commenting on BSA, Iran’s Press TV aptly stated on September 30: “Germany and Japan provide excellent examples of how the number of American bases mushroomed in these countries under the pretext of fighting the Cold War.”
Pakistan hopes to work with Afghanistan’s new president to reverse a recent sharp deterioration in its relations with Kabul; ties enigmatically deteriorated during Hamid Karzai’s final months; he had developed an approach of blaming Pakistan for anything that happened or could happen in Afghanistan. The immediate priority for both sides should be to reduce the acute tensions along the border. Hopefully, President Ghani would put into operation an earlier agreement on better management of border.
Pakistan can facilitate an intra-Afghan reconciliation between the government and the Afghan Taliban. For this, there is a need to revive the spirit of Doha process, with Afghan government in lead. Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign and Security Affairs, Mr Sartaz Aziz, has said in a recent interview that: “Reconciliation is an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process… So, once they have developed their strategy and they need our help we will certainly respond positively.”
Things are not very promising on Afghanistan’s economic and governance fronts. Editorial board of International New York Times has aptly commented on October 01: “By the end of the year, Congress will have appropriated more money for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, when adjusted for inflation, than the United States spent rebuilding 16 European nations after World War II under the Marshall Plan. A staggering portion of that money — $104 billion — has been mismanaged and stolen. Much of what was built is crumbling or will be unsustainable. Well-connected Afghans smuggled millions of stolen aid money in suitcases that were checked onto Dubai-bound flights. The Afghan government largely turned a blind eye to widespread malfeasance… The International Monetary Fund estimates that Afghanistan will face a financial gap of roughly $7.7 billion annually between now and 2018…If the flow of money is to keep going, the Afghan government has to prove that it can be trusted. And, for its part, Congress should not hesitate to cut off the aid if corruption remains unabated”.
Ashraf Ghani has pledged to stamp out graft. “I am not corrupt, and I am not going to encourage corruption, tolerate it or become the instrument,” he told the BBC in an interview. That will be easier said than done in a country where back-room deals are the norm.
President Ghani is aware that peace and stability in the region will depend on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, is also upbeat about a strong bilateral relationship in the coming years. However, with a complex power sharing agreement, it remains to be seen as to what extent new President controls the Afghan foreign policy.
Moreover, presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, how so ever symbolic, would continue to radiate stability-instability aromas of fluctuating shades. This will also continue to provide a pretext for the Afghan Taliban to continue their militancy focused political struggle against the new Afghan regime. If so, Pakistan is destined to remain at the receiving end of the falling row of dominoes.
The Nation, October 06, 2014.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer, and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.