Monday, March 31, 2014

Afghan Presidential Election and the BSA with America

It is a critical year for Afghanistan this year. While President Hamid Karzai stands tough against the Obama administration to conclude the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, the presidential election will be held on April 5. NATO troops will leave by the end of this year, but the Afghan Security Forces need substantial help from the United States to fight the War on Terror. Though early conclusion is anticipated, Karzai quibbles over the condition of the BSA. As he is stepping down, and he cannot run for the next term by the constitution, the role of the next president cannot be neglected in post 2014 security and stability in Afghanistan.

Let me talk briefly about the BSA, and the reason why Karzai makes complaints about the process, despite the approval by the Loya Jirga. The BSA is a part of the “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America”. This agreement was implemented on July 4, 2012, for long term framework of bilateral relations. Under the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the United States provides development aid and governance advice for socioeconomic reforms, including education, health care, regional cooperation, and so forth. However, issues like the status of US forces after 2014 drawback and long term US military presence in Afghanistan were not stated in this deal. Therefore, both the United States and Afghanistan started negotiations for the BSA started on November 15, 2012. Both sides stressed that the United States respect Afghan sovereignty and not seek permanent military presence there so as not to pose threats to Afghan neighbors. Despite the scale down, the US forces are expected to support the Afghan Security Forces to fight against still rampant terrorists and insurgents.

The focal point of BSA debates is Article 13, which gives the US forces exclusive right to try their soldiers within their own military tribunal. The Loya Jirga approved this clause on November 21 last year (“US troops immunity approved by majority in Afghan Loya Jirga”; Khaama Press; November 23, 2013), but Karzai overturned the bill to demand new conditions when he met National Security Advisor Susan Rice in Kabul in late November. Karzai raised doubts regarding the status of the US forces at the Loya Jirga when the delegates passed the bill. Though the BSA restricts US forces to commit themselves to combat operations unless mutually agreed, Karzai demands furthermore to limit US presence within 10 years (“Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he’ll delay signing of U.S. accord on troops”; Washington Post; November 21, 2013). His speech startled Loya Jirga members, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel even suggested the Zero Option to urge Karzai to sign the deal early (“Hagel Threatens Complete Withdrawal from Afghanistan”; Fiscal Times; December 9, 2013). The United States plans to station 8,000 to 10,000 forces in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism after 2014, and demands legal immunity of US soldiers from insufficiently arranged Afghan criminal laws. Karzai’s overturn was taken outrageous among American policymakers. While Karzai complains that security control and decision making are in favor of the United States, former ISAF commander General John Allen argues not to give too much decision making power to him, in view of sacrifices America made and future security of Afghanistan (“U.S. Backing off its deadline for Afghan security agreement”; Washington Post; December 12, 2013).

Why does Karzai delay the BSA process, despite Loya Jisrga’s approval? Ahmad Akatawazai, staff writer of Khaama Press, comments that Karzai wants to maintain political influence after stepping down, as he is barred from running for the next presidential term. It is understood that the candidate most closely tied with Karzai will win the election (“Is Karzai using BSA as Leverage in the Forthcoming Presidential Elections?”; Khaama Press; January 14, 2014). Karzai demands the United States to stop military raids on civilian homes, and hand over Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo (“New differences revealed over Afghan-US security deal” Khaama Press; November 26, 2013). Karzai complained furthermore, that too many Afghans died in the war just for the sake of Western interests. He was disappointed that the United States focused too much on Taliban in Pakistan rather than those in Afghan villages (“President Karzai says Afghan war fought in West’s interest”; Khaama Press; March 3, 2014). Karzai denounced that Americans cause Afghan casualties too impetuously in their combats. He even argued conspiracy theory that the United States deliberately nurtured insurgent attacks in his country. Karzai’s stance is partly because he wants to impress himself a great leader who stood tough against the superpower. Quite disturbingly, insurgent attacks are accompanied by collateral damages of US drone attacks (“Karzai suspects U.S. is behind insurgent-style attacks, Afghan officials say”; Washington Post; January 28, 2014).

It is quite puzzling for other stakeholders that Karzai is so pushy to delay the BSA. Current ISAF Commander, General Joseph Dunford urged the Karzai administration sign the BSA soon at the press conference on January 9, because there was no alternative to assure reconstruction of Afghanistan after 2014. See the video below.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen emphasized that the BSA is indispensable to implement NATO Status of Forces Agreement with Afghanistan, at the defense ministers meeting in Brussels on February 26.

On the other hand, the Karzai administration is exploring an alternative to the BSA, in case of the Zero Option. While making quibbles with issues like the status of US forces, Karzai visited Tehran to conclude a long term friendship and cooperation pact with Iran, which was signed in August. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told Western forces to leave Afghanistan as they would pose substantial threats to Afghan neighbors (“Afghanistan agrees to pact with Iran, while resisting US accord”; FOX News; December 8, 2013). Karzai turns to Iran because he wants bigger bargains in BSA negotiations, and prepare for possible failure to conclude the deal with the United States. In addition, since Iran started nuclear talks with P5+1, that has removed some restrictions for India to work with them to stabilize Afghanistan. Besides major western powers like the United States and Britain, India agreed to provide military aid to Afghanistan, though the Singh administration expressed their hope that Karzai finalize the BSA (“Could Iran and India be Afghanistan’s ‘Plan B?’”; Diplomat; February 14, 2014). Karzai takes another measure. He approached Taliban secretly, which undermined confidence between the United States and his administration. Actually Karzai was infuriated with the Obama administration as they invited Taliban to the Qatar peace talk last June. Karzai insisted that his government was the only legitimate government to represent Afghanistan, and Taliban’s Qatar office be closed. In addition to backlash over the sovereignty issue in the past, Karzai tries to appear himself tough for the United States to Pashtun-dominated Taliban (“Karzai Arranged Secret Contacts With the Taliban”; New York Times; February 3, 2014).

Karzai’s approach to the BSA is extremely dangerous. Ahmad Shah Katawazai, An Afghan diplomat and permanent member of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan, warns that the Zero Option invigorates Jihadists and Al Qaeda in Central Asia, which will make Afghanistan fall into turmoil like Iraq. Both Loya Jirga delegates and Afghan people understand how important the BSA is. Katawazai argues that a departure of US forces will be a psychological blow to Afghan reformers who dedicate themselves to the reconstruction of their country (“Iraq a bloody lesson for Zero Option in Afghanistan”; Khaama Press; January 7, 2014). Last September, General Dunford made it clear that US forces should help the Afghan security force develop their combat capability, and the cost of neglect would be far greater than engagement (“First person: Top U.S. general in Afghanistan maps out next phase of war”; Military Times; September 12, 2013). Quite perplexingly, Karzai makes fake cases of collateral damage by air strikes, just in order to demand tight restrictions on US forces in the BSA (“Karzai Government Submits False Evidence To Substantiate US Collateral Damage”; Diplomat; January 27, 2014).

In order to override Karzai’s delay, Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley of the Bush administration, suggests three measures. First, the United States should reconfirm the agreement that its forces focus on essential night raids, and facilitate socioeconomic reforms and the peace process, in order to save Karzai’s face. Second, Obama should tell the exact number of troops to be left in Afghanistan, in order to assure US presence after 2014. This will pave the way for NATO allies to make similar commitments. Finally, Obama should articulate that he is willing to sign the agreement, but not pressure the Afghan side to do it before the election. A mere mention of the Zero Option will erode mutual trust, and destabilize the nuclear possessing neighbor Pakistan (“In Afghanistan, an alternate approach to a security pact”; Washington Post; January 15, 2014).

In the forthcoming election, Karzai’s influence and ethnic balance count more than specific policy issues. According to a recent survey by Afghan based ATR Consulting, Ashraf Ghani leads, followed by Abdullah Abdullah and other candidates (“Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai emerges as leading presidential candidate: Survey”; Khaama Press; March 30, 2014). Pashtun Ghani runs with Uzbek General Rashid Dostum, while Tajik Abdullah with Islamist Mohammad Khan and Hazara Mohammad Mohaqeq. However, Helena Malikyar, an Afghan political analyst, points out that materialism also plays a substantial role along with ethnic patchwork. Followers demand money and future positions in the government to the candidates (“Afghanistan elections: The myth and reality about ethnic divides”; Al Jazeera; March 3, 2014 and “Abdullah, in Interview, Speaks About His Presidential Campaign”; Wall Street Journal; October 3, 2013). Both candidates understand the importance of the BSA and that no other alternatives can supplant it. Ghani was a World Bank economist, while Abdullah served as a Foreign Minister. In any case, the BSA was approved by the Loya Jirga. As both candidates worked for President Hamid Karzai, how will he exert his influence after the election?