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An Endless Afghan War: What’s the Deal?

International “deals” have been flooding the headlines, and whether these deals concern issues of nuclear power or global trade, the average citizen is often left wondering about the long term effects of the underlying conditions. In Afghanistan, recent talks of a post-2014 security agreement between the United States have been raising questions as to what a bilateral deal would entail for both parties. Superficially, the agreement would establish a framework for continued U.S. presence after 2014, however negotiations have prompted questions concerning U.S immunity and unauthorized raids on Afghan homes. While the agreement will build domestic and regional stability, the long lasting effects may not serve to please both domestic populations.

U.S. and international troops have been active in Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, following a plan to oust the Taliban government in response to their connections with al-Qaeda and the September 11th attacks on the U.S.  President Obama’s plan for complete troop withdrawal by the end of 2014 was warmly welcomed by the majority of Americans eagerly awaiting the return of their  war heroes. And rightly so: the 12-year war has offered very few gains for the average American, and has instead cost billions of taxpayer dollars for a cause that many people still do not understand. If an agreement is passed, U.S. outposts could remain in Afghanistan until 2024 and beyond. For an administration that has aimed to reassure that U.S. policy would remain domestic in focus in an effort to rebuild the economy, injecting billions of more dollars into a continued presence in Afghanistan could cause domestic discontent.

Negotiations reached an impasse over the issue of legal jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, this was also a key dispute in negotiations after the Iraq war, where the U.S. was unwilling to concede.  Ultimately, the U.S. and Iraq were not able to reach a security agreement regarding the complete withdrawal of forces. Huge security problems have arisen in Iraq since American withdrawal, and this is something Obama has been keen to avoid in Afghanistan. The U.S. maintains in its inflexible Status of Forces Agreement that it shall keep exclusive legal jurisdiction over American soldiers and contractors, allowing U.S. authorities to prosecute wrongdoing on their own terms.  Afghans see this as undermining their legitimacy; they are still angry over incidents involving international troops, including the shooting spree of a U.S. soldier which killed 16 civilians.

Another key sticking point in negotiations has been the issue of U.S. raids on Afghan homes. Previously, these raids have been seen as a gross violation of sovereignty for individuals, yet the U.S. considers them necessary in their fight against terrorism. For Afghans, it is important that combating insurgency and building the capacity of the security forces do not accompany ulterior U.S. motives that could undermine Afghan legitimacy further. The U.S. has come to the agreement that raids would only be carried in extraordinary circumstances. While this was not an optimal outcome for Afghans in negotiations, the U.S. acknowledged past military mistakes and promised to ensure that such mistakes would not be repeated in response.

Continued international support is needed to rebuild and stabilize the government structures and security forces that were torn down during deployment. While international agencies have started this process, it will be crucial for ongoing security and stability that they see it through. Afghan security forces face overwhelming deficiencies in intelligence and logistic systems, not to mention the issues of clientelism and fissures along ethnic and patronage lines present. The Afghan government realizes that without continued military assistance, training and funding that they are at risk of civil war. It is hard to imagine how the global community would be affected if a civil war were to ensue giving rise to terrorist networks, but it is safe to say it is not something that Afghan citizens desire given a 12 year foreign military presence.

Furthermore, if an agreement is not reached, severe economic decline is also a possibility.  Sustained Western presence naturally reassures foreign and Afghan investors, and serves to mitigate capital flight. The agreement also holds significance for NATO, since they have indicated that they would not sign an agreement for continued presence without the U.S. This would mean that billions of dollars in international funding would be at stake. Additionally, the ability of Western development agencies and NGOs to operate and deliver projects is a function of security and protection.

This agreement exemplifies the basics of every other security deal throughout history, stability and security, which are in the greater interests of both parties. However, the U.S. needs to be careful with respect to the extent of commitment to aid and assistance, as many Americans see the original invasion as a huge failure. From an Afghan perspective, many key points could also impact sovereignty. There is no denying that it would act as a much needed regional stabilizer.  One can also only hope that U.S. presence in the region would  serve to keep watch on and deter neighbouring Iran and Pakistan from any condemned behaviour in their links to terrorist networks. Afghan President Karzai needs to realize that he does not have the leverage to push for more concessions or delay until his successor is elected in 2014, as the U.S. could easily walk away.

– Beth Mansell


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by The U.S. Army

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