KABUL: President Karzai flew to US on a three-day consultative visit with the perception that world needs Afghanistan more than vice versa. Much of the ambiguity about post-2014 Afghanistan was to be removed during this visit.
Although both countries have already signed Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in May 2012 but that does not specifically commit US to Afghanistan economically and militarily.
SPA only affirms US military presence and social and economic cooperation with Afghanistan beyond 2014. By the end 2014 - with the NATO mandate concluding - President Obama intends to bring the war to its ‘responsible end’ too - while reaffirming enduring partnership with Afghanistan. To determine the level of military and economic engagement, a new set of conditions is being negotiated between the two countries for couple of months now - following the signing of SPA.
The sticking point between the US and Afghan negotiators is a strong condition laid by President Karzai that the foreign military troops will be subject to Afghan laws after 2014. This condition is said to be used by Karzai as a bargaining chip to gain as much as possible, and secure his political and family’s interests - especially to seek protection to his family’s ill-gotten wealth which they have accumulated over the years.
Karzai, with a year left in his second and final term as president, has lost political influence and sympathies at home and internationally. In the past few years he had gained the reputation of an unreliable partner amongst his fellow men and foreigners. The in US particular has been irritated with him for blaming the American intervention for insecurity and corruption in his country. Even Pakistan has been irked with Karzai’s constant blame-game.
To Karzai’s disappointment, Obama turned the tables on Afghan president with his blunt statements that there will ‘not be any kind of’ US military presence in Afghanistan without granting them immunity. Obama also said that follow-on force of any sort past 2014 would be at the invitation of the Afghan government. His deputy national security adviser went as far as floating the zero-troop option.
Obama further dashed Karzai’s hopes by announcing early end to the US forces combat mission than what was decided at the Lisbon summit. Obama said that from Spring this year, the role of US forces will switch from combat to support; i.e. training, advising and assisting the Afghan forces. At the same time, he also said that the US forces will fight along the Afghan forces ‘when needed’ - without elaborating at what stage the American forces can be called for help.
Obama’s dramatically scaled back interest in Afghanistan compelled Karzai to cave in to US demands. To spare himself further embarrassment, Karzai on his return quickly announced convening a Loya Jirga to decide on granting immunity to the US troops. Loya Jirgas have traditionally been used to rubber-stamp the already made decisions by president and his coteries.
He has been severely criticised at home for his failure to gain substantive commitments from US to economically and militarily secure Afghanistan after 2014. Although he tried to assuage the anxious public by touting progress on other issues like complete hand over of the Bagram prison, withdrawal of US forces from villages and opening of Taliban office in Doha.
The Afghan public concerns include security and flow of funds after complete withdrawal of foreign forces. The Afghans doubt the capability of their own security forces to fight the insurgency and secure the country independently. They also fear that the gains achieved in the past eleven years will be reversed if the US leaves. They believe that troop withdrawal will be accompanied by scaling down of large development projects, which will affect the economy drastically. And with reduced foreign interest in Afghanistan, the flow of financial aid will be affected too.
According to World Bank estimates, Afghanistan needs $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion annually for non-security spending alone.Karzai’s long awaited US visit added ambiguity to Afghanistan’s relations with the US and other NATO allies beyond 2014. It must have deepened Karzai’s personal insecurities too.