Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington this week for what are being billed as definitive consultations with the Obama administration on the organization of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan through 2013-14. The broad outline of how America’s decade-long occupation of Afghanistan comes to an end is quite clear. But the devil, as always, is in the detail.
Last May, U.S. President Barack Obama signed a strategic partnership agreement with Karzai to underline America’s strong commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan. Obama followed up by mobilizing the support of NATO allies for a decade-long international commitment to finance the Afghan armed forces and provide sustained developmental assistance.
As political support for Western occupation of Afghanistan rapidly evaporates and the financial crisis squeezes defense spending everywhere in the West, the credibility of the declared American strategy has come under a shadow.
There are deep differences in Washington on the structuring of the transition — the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the assumption of security responsibilities by the Afghan national forces in the coming months. Consider for example, the question on how large the residual American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 should be. The United States currently has about 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Obama has already decided that by the end of 2014, American forces will end their combat role in Afghanistan and focus on a different mission: to train and assist the Afghan armed forces as they take charge of the country’s security. Besides assisting the Afghan armed forces, the residual force will also be involved in counter-terror duties focused on attacking the bases of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Afghan neighborhood.
Within this framework, the U.S. military leadership wants to keep as many forces in place as long as possible. Put another way, the generals want to leave the maximum number of troops available for the coming fighting season this year.
The political leadership is not so enthusiastic. The liberals in the Obama administration and in the Democratic Party want a steady withdrawal through 2013 and a quick handover of all security responsibilities to the Afghans. The U.S. military’s interest in having a residual force of 20,000 to 30,000 was widely reported a few months ago. The president and the civilian advisors have apparently ruled out such a large force and are now reportedly considering three options on the size of the residual force at 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000.
If the United States is divided, Washington and Kabul are at odds with each other on a number of issues. The most important differences relate to the conditions under which the U.S. forces will stay in Afghanistan after the occupation comes to an end.
Washington and Kabul are negotiating the “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) that will identify the legal terms under which U.S. forces will operate, and the nature of American control over its military bases in Afghanistan. The United States wants its forces to be subject to American rather than Afghan law. But Karzai, under growing pressure to demonstrate his independence from the U.S., is naturally emphasizing the question of Afghan sovereignty.
The question of immunity for American troops led to the breakdown of the negotiations between Washington and Baghdad on the presence of a residual American force in Iraq after 2010. But unlike the Iraqi government, Karzai needs the presence of the U.S. troops to ensure the stability of his regime. While he will drive a hard bargain, Karzai will have to find some compromise with Washington.
Meanwhile, the Taliban, which is being wooed intensely by the United States with the help of the Pakistani army, has declared the presence of even a single foreign soldier in Afghanistan after 2014 is unacceptable.
Karzai has demands of his own on Washington. He wants the U.S. to commit to a substantive arms supplies and the modernization of Afghan armed forces. Of particular interest to Karzai is the upgrading of the Afghan air force.
The Pakistani army, however, is likely to oppose any American moves in that direction. Rawalpindi must be expected to fully leverage its emerging role in the Afghan peace process to prevent Washington from making any significant offers on future arms transfers to Kabul.