For some time it seemed that Afghanistan had slipped from Washington’s top priorities as the Obama administration became preoccupied by political gridlock at home, as well as fast moving developments in the Middle East and terrorist threats in Africa. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s weekend trip to Kabul signalled that the US still had important business to transact in Afghanistan. The visit was impelled by urgency to secure a security deal that would allow for a post-2014 US military presence in that country.
After a year of negotiations between Washington and Kabul, the continuing stalemate on a bilateral security agreement (BSA) made the US deadline of October to conclude the deal appear increasingly elusive. In recent months both countries also began to engage in a public game of brinkmanship. Each side threatened to walk away from talks if the other didn’t yield on areas of disagreement.
As President Hamid Karzai’s public statements became more strident, leaks in the American media suggested that if no agreement were reached, the US would exercise the ‘zero option’ of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Last week President Barack Obama himself declared that without a BSA he would have to order a complete troop pullout.
Against this backdrop, Secretary Kerry’s unannounced visit to Kabul ended in agreement on most of the terms for a BSA. But a key sticking point remained unresolved: legal immunity for American forces from prosecution in Afghanistan. This meant that despite progress achieved in two days of lengthy talks no final accord emerged.
President Karzai announced that the immunity issue would be decided by a Loya Jirga, which he planned to convene next month. It will then be placed before Parliament. And Kerry made it clear that “If the issue of jurisdiction cannot be resolved, then there cannot be a bilateral security agreement.” In another indication that other matters remained to be finalised, Karzai said there were several “small issues” and “technical points” he had yet to review.
This left an air of uncertainty – and many unanswered questions. When would Karzai, who steps down in six months, call the Loya Jirga? He has already postponed this twice. Would the Jirga endorse the deal, especially in the middle of the country’s election season? Registration of presidential candidates ended earlier this month for elections due in April 2014. With the BSA still not signed, could it end up as an election issue? If Kerry’s trip was timed to avert this possibility it is unclear how any more delay – over remaining hurdles – will play into campaign politics and shape the outcome.
Although the exact terms of what has been described as a ‘partial deal’ have yet to be announced, an important and consequential question is how the BSA will affect future efforts to revive Afghan peace talks, given that the Taliban’s main demand is withdrawal of all foreign forces from their country. In his Eid message, Mullah Omar rejected the proposed agreement, saying that Afghans would never accept a “document of surrender” rubberstamped by a “fake” Loya Jirga.
There is also no regional consensus on a long-term US military presence. Most regional states, especially Iran, Russia and China, have misgivings even if there are also concerns in the region about a possible security vacuum after 2014. These regional concerns have yet to be addressed much less resolved, because there is no final security document or details for neighbouring countries to take firm positions on. Delay on this count will shrink the space for much needed regional diplomacy.
As no agreement has been concluded this leaves Karzai with room to manoeuvre and raises another possibility. What if President Karzai plays the BSA down to the wire to bargain for postponement of elections? However improbable, the possibility cannot be ruled out, especially as senior Afghan officials have privately been musing over a postponement, ostensibly by a “few months”, which they claim is constitutionally permitted.
Any postponement will however be unacceptable to all the Afghan opposition groups, provoke internal discord, and also jeapordise Nato’s exit strategy. American officials say Washington would oppose any postponement. They also argue that after Kerry’s visit, Karzai cannot long drag out the BSA issue by prevaricating on the Loya Jirga or manipulating it. But it is yet to be seen how the US will resolve the immunity issue without a trade off, if Karzai uses delaying tactics. What will that trade off be?
And what would be the implications, especially for Afghan reconciliation prospects, if all energies continue to be consumed by efforts to conclude the BSA, to the virtual exclusion of addressing other aspects of the transitions ahead? Uncertainty has already deepened about the political, economic and security transitions because the most important prerequisite for their achievement is nowhere in sight – peace talks for a political settlement to end the war.
Valuable time has been lost to prolonged wrangling between Washington and Kabul on the BSA. This has also exacted a heavy price – delaying if not derailing peace efforts. It was in June that Karzai suspended talks on the BSA in protest against the US for orchestrating the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar. A promising start to a possible peace process was stopped dead in its tracks by Karzai’s calculation that Washington needed a BSA more than anything else. He linked the two issues and insisted that unless he was at the centre of any dialogue with the Taliban he would not let it proceed.
Since June, there have been no serious efforts to revive Doha, even though Taliban representatives have not left Qatar and their spokesman have reiterated willingness to pick up the threads from where they were left off.
Islamabad has repeatedly urged Washington not to abandon the Doha option. The US balked at Pakistan’s proposal, offered a few months ago, for “pre-talks” to resolve misunderstandings that led to the diplomatic debacle at Doha. But as securing the BSA became the overwhelming American priority, the peace process was pushed to the back burner. That is where it remains today. With the security deal taking precedence, the US has not wanted to risk annoying Karzai by taking any initiative to resuscitate the Doha process.
Meanwhile the modest improvement in Pakistan-Afghan relations after Karzai’s August visit to Islamabad has done little to move the reconciliation process forward. Given the Taliban’s refusal to talk to the Karzai regime, Pakistan’s release of a senior Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, on Kabul’s request, is unlikely to change that dynamic. The indications are that any meaningful move towards political reconciliation may have to wait for the post-Karzai era.
If the presidential election is held on time then another question is whether this process itself can produce political engagement with the Taliban as various contenders seek to cut deals and build alliances. More importantly, can the Taliban be persuaded not to disrupt the election, in the absence of any peace process? So far Taliban representatives have rejected the election. Mullah Omar reiterated this in his Eid message and urged people not to participate in what he dubbed a “drama”. It is conceivable that if peace talks had taken off in June some kind of accommodation may have emerged to ensure the elections went off peacefully.
With none of this resolved, doubts have intensified about a smooth and orderly path to 2014 and beyond. Muddle through seems to mark the US-led coalition’s approach to the looming transitions. What throws all three milestones into uncertainty is the lack of serious efforts towards a negotiated political settlement to put an end to fighting ahead of 2014. This was supposed to serve as the foundation for a peaceful transition in 2014 and to help assure the country’s post-2014 stability.
With time running out for progress on this count, the danger looms of turmoil and instability in post-2014 Afghanistan. No one may want that outcome, least of all Pakistan, but Islamabad will have no choice but to prepare itself to deal with the fallout.
The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Twitter: @LodhiMaleehaDr. Maleeha Lodhi, "Uncertain path to 2014," The News. 2013-10-15.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Foreign forces , Presidential election , Taliban , Economy , President Karzai , John Kerry , President Obama , Afghanistan , Iran , Russia , BSA