By: IMRAN MALIK
KABUL: (MEP) – The US started laying down the basic paradigms for creating the post-2014 strategic and operational environment in Afghanistan a long while ago. Its efforts took roots with the Enduring Security Partnership Agreement (ESPA) between the US and Afghanistan which went into effect on 4 July 2012. It tackled issues like aid assistance, governance advice and covered wide dimensions of socio-economic development, institution building, regional cooperation and security.
However, the most important issues of Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the continuation of US (nine) military bases were left to be tackled in the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) which was to be negotiated within one year of the signing of the ESPA. The BSA was to set conditions for the US forces in Afghanistan after 2014 as a part of a “train, advice and assist mission”.
Recently, after hectic and detailed negotiations Afghanistan and the US have ostensibly made serious progress on the BSA though disagreements abide. These generally pertain to Afghan fears of being overwhelmed by the US forces inside Afghanistan and other regional forces specially the non-state actors operating across the Durand Line.
First is Afghanistan’s need for assurance that its stability would be guaranteed against foreign aggression or “invasion”. Afghanistan’s deep concerns emanate from its belief that despite its unequivocal guarantee to its security under the ESPA the US failed to respond to alleged ground violations of the Durand Line by Pakistan in the shape of cross border firings, shelling, firing of missiles, et al. Further they feel that the Haqqani Network (HN) and others have safe havens across the Durand Line and that they conduct operations across it. They apparently expect the US to respond actively and punitively against all such “invasions” of its sovereignty.
This necessitated a clear definition and interpretation of the term “invasion”. Apparently Afghanistan’s and the US’ interpretations are at a variance to one another. The US, perhaps, does not consider cross border terrorism as an invasion!
Second is the need for the Afghans to seek assurances for upholding their sovereignty. Afghanistan is against all unilateral operations that the US/NATO/ISAF may conduct in the pre-and post-2014 periods. It is in particular concerned about night raids, operations of Special Operations troops, drone and air strikes carried out by international forces within its territory et al. The US is not likely to have too many objections to co-opting the Afghans in these operations however it would be unwilling to cede control of the operational environment and its freedom to act within it.
Third, is the issue of SOFA. As an inviolable condition of employing its forces in any theater of war in the world the US ensures that its forces are guaranteed immunity from persecution under the laws of the land in which they operate. Else it walks away, as it conveniently did in Iraq. The irresponsible and incomplete closure of that war and the resultant mayhem and destruction are there for all to see.
The Afghans are in a no-win position on this issue. If they agree to the US demand then they lose control and authority in their own land which may lead to many unwarranted Afghan deaths. If they do not and the US walks away from this theater of war (zero option) then the consequences could be even worse. It could lead the country and the region into a virtual vortex of instability, chaos, mayhem, death and destruction. No wonder the hapless and clueless Afghan President has passed the buck on to a Loya Jirga to be convened within a month and to be followed by placing the issue before the Afghan Parliament.
The BSA raises serious issues which must also be tackled forthwith.
Is the division of authority and control to rule Afghanistan likely to continue even beyond 2014? This has been the case for the past few years and if the BSA is agreed to, then a status quo is likely to persist. That would have serious bearings on the Afghan domestic and regional strategic environment and will delay a solution to the terrorism issue.
The BSA must also determine the mechanics of dealing with the issue of terrorism in toto; war-lords, ethnic and sectarian divides, drug trade and mafias et al within the socio-economic-cultural fabric of Afghanistan. If more than 150000 troops were unable to defeat terrorism and pacify the Afghan nation would a fraction of that figure be anyway successful? Or will the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) be competent, strong and effective enough to do what the US/NATO/ISAF could not do? A realistic re-appraisal is in order by the two. The US must bring its Afghan Expedition to a responsible and just closure!
Relations and approach to Pakistan would be critical. Pakistan would be an inevitable factor in most of their deliberations, assessments and calculations. Whichever way the dice rolls in the case of the BSA Pakistan will be directly affected. If the BSA is agreed to Pakistan is likely to confront a continuation of the current strategic environment for a very long time to come. If the US adopts the “zero option” then again Pakistan will end up facing the consequences (regional unrest, upheavals, turmoil, refugees, heightened acts of terrorism etc) of this US decision. The US will be well advised to co-opt Pakistan in the future of Afghanistan. A unilateral or even bilateral approach by it would not only harm its interests but would also push the region into a much graver strategic situation than before.
And finally, do we see the first signs of an Indo-US connivance in Afghanistan; a sinister convergence of interests there? Is the US going to look after the political and military issues of Afghanistan only and allocate to India the role to rejuvenate Afghanistan’s economy? Do they together intend to control the “central position” in the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR) much to the detriment of Russian, Chinese (SCO), the CARs, Pakistani and Iranian interests? Will such ambitions not have serious strategic connotations for the region and the world at large?
Regional powers beware!
The author is a retired Brigadier, a former Defense Attache’ in Australia and New Zealand and is currently on the faculty of NUST (NIPCONS).