Outlook Afghanistan op-ed published May 08
President Obama’s short stay in Kabul was more of a symbolic political visit on the eve of Osama bin Laden’s first death anniversary. Addressing Americans from Afghanistan before launching reelection campaign, President Obama reminded them that he sent the Navy SEALs to kill Osama.
He said the tide of insurgency has turned and the Taliban’s momentum has been broken. He spoke to Americans with a victorious tone, about a situation that is more of a quagmire of uncertainties for us in Afghanistan. It shows the sophisticated reach and strength of the Taliban who were successful to launch an attack in Kabul as soon as President Obama’s arrival was breaking news on Afghan media. Several, including some foreign security guards were killed when some insurgents breached the high-security zone of Kabul and attacked Green Village, a compound where foreign aid workers and diplomatic staff live.
Talking about the security transition and Afghan forces taking control, he mentioned the decrease in size of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in 2015, a plan proposed by the Obama Administration to reduce the burden of military costs on the US and its NATO allies. Details of the plan might be endorsed in the NATO Chicago Summit next week.
The size of ANSF is projected to reach 352,000 before October this year, of which 195,000 number of Afghan National Army has already been completed. The Obama Administration is considering a plan to downsize ANSF to 230,000, reducing a third of it starting gradually from 2015 to 2017. It is estimated that the current strength of ANSF will cost annually about $10billion. But the reduced size of ANSF has an estimated $4.2billion annual cost. The United States is urging its NATO allies to contribute about 1 billion Euros to this, while Washington would channel about $3 billion. But among NATO allies, only Britain has pledged $110million annually. It is expected that Afghanistan add about $500million to $1billion annually to the cost of its security forces.
However, Afghan security officials have been critical of the Obama Administration’s plan to heavily downsize the ANSF. Afghan officials say the plans are a conceptual model based on certain assumptions of improved security and a possible deal with insurgents for a political settlement.
Presidents Obama and Karzai also signed the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). After two years of contentious negotiations on Afghan-control of US-run prisons in Afghanistan and the limits of Special Forces’ night raids agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding on the Transfer of US Detention Facilities and the Memorandum of Understanding on Afghanization of the Special Operations, the announcement of SPA was expected to bring a sigh of relief.
But the SPA is a general framework short of specifics. It talks about the generals of US-Afghanistan relations after ISAF withdrawal in 2014. Details of the US military presence and commitment to Afghanistan will be part of another Bilateral Security Agreement to be finalized by next year.
Domestically, the SPA has been criticized. We could not expect more than this from the ruling circle who have made sure to secure their domestic narrow-interests in the SPA. President Karzai at the press conference next day was saying the SPA clearly rejects change of system in Afghanistan.
One instance is the intentional wrong translation of some terms in the English, Pashto and Dari versions of the SPA. At the end of the text, it is mentioned that all three translations are equally authenticated. The original SPA text in English says “Afghanistan shall strengthen the integrity and capacity of its democratic institutions and processes, including by taking tangible steps to further the efficiency and effectiveness of its three branches of state within its ‘unitary’ system of government, and supporting development of a vibrant civil society, including a free and open media.”
In Dari and Pashto versions, they have replaced ‘unitary’ with ‘central’ (markazi). All major political opposition blocks are calling for decentralization of power, with more administrative authorities to local governance bodies and parliamentary form of government. They are strongly criticizing this part of the SPA. But the fact is that our visionless rulers with narrow-interests are playing domestic politics with the strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the US.
It must have been push by the Palace negotiators to avoid a single mention of the Taliban in the SPA. It glosses over by mentioning “Al-Qaeda and affiliates” avoiding the name of Taliban or other insurgents, keeping room for manipulations of Karzai and Co’s power-sharing designs to strike deal with elements of the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami after 2014.
But the question is, why should Afghanistan’s system of Government be mentioned in a strategic partnership agreement with any country? It is a matter of constitutional and internal affairs that can be changed on popular demand, not a concern for our strategic relations with the US.
Amrullah Saleh says by avoiding mention of Taliban, some Palace elements are furthering the agenda of their neighboring foreign patrons to ignore the safe havens of insurgents and their leadership across the border. He adds that after ten years of ruling, the Palace has no definition of national security for Afghanistan and a vision for enemy and friend.
Besides all these, the NATO summit in Chicago was supposed to come up with concrete security plans and commitments after its fundamentals were to be detailed in the US-Afghanistan SPA, but uncertainty seems to loom for another year.
The US and NATO are in rush with an exit formula, but without a concrete post-withdrawal strategy. It is not clear how many US troops will stay in Afghanistan. There are no clear US commitments on military and economic support to Afghanistan in the SPA, and it will not be any clear in the NATO Chicago Summit too. NATO countries should come up with clear pledges of continuation of aid to Afghanistan.
The decrease of ANSF strength should be based on ground realities and conditions of improved security. Long-term stability and security should take precedence over cutting costs in determining US support for ANSF. It cannot be based on assumptions of success in talks with Taliban and better cooperation from Pakistan. There is no Plan B for a scenario when insurgency will increase much deadlier after 2014 while Afghan forces will be reduced to half and the bulk of US and NATO troops will withdraw.