Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s high-stakes game with the United States on signing a Bilateral Security Agreement appears to be yielding results. The Americans are no longer insisting on the year-end deadline and they have softened their tone considerably.
Karzai has repeatedly introduced new wrinkles into the process, provoking the Obama Administration to issue dire public warnings. When he announced he was bound by no deadline to sign the BSA, Washington sent two senior cabinet officials – National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel – to read him the riot act. They openly talked about the “zero option” of leaving no troops and also turning off the taps of international aid, which helps the Afghan economy enormously.
The zero option – always a bit of a scare tactic – was meant to force Karzai’s hand. But Karzai, a canny politician who cut his teeth in the fight against the Soviets, appears to have won this round.
The United States is no longer insisting on a particular date for signing and it is willing to wait to get a deal. It still says that the BSA should be signed before the presidential elections in Afghanistan scheduled for April 2014. The agreement would allow the United States to maintain a residual presence in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism and training purposes.
This is where the latest wrinkle comes in. Karzai, to his credit and perhaps to India’s satisfaction, is dissatisfied with the way terrorism is defined in the BSA. To the Americans, fighting terrorism has largely been about crushing Al-Qaeda, which directly threatens their security. They have a narrow definition of terrorism and generally see neat boxes instead of a seamless, amorphous animal which can attack Americans one day, Afghans the next and Indians the day after.
Karzai wants attacks on Afghan homes and public installations to also be defined as terrorism, which should prompt US action under the BSA. Perhaps, that is a bridge too far and a brave act of overreach but it is not without merit. As his spokesman Aimal Faizi said earlier this week, “We want a clear, proper definition of terrorism.”
Clearly, the two sides disagree over the definition of terrorism as indeed do many countries who have been debating the issue for years at the United Nations. From Afghanistan’s point of view, much of the instability and terrorism comes from Pakistan harboring the Afghan Taliban and using them as assets to keep Kabul off kilter.
Washington, on the other hand, has depended enormously on Pakistan to “interpret” Afghanistan. Despite this being their longest war, the American understanding and policy has shifted, even drifted but always come back to Rawalpindi for day-to-day management. Karzai and many Afghans don’t want their future security to be outsourced to Pakistan, a country that enjoys little popularity among the people. This is also where the BSA has raised more questions than it has answered.
The Americans want to keep their role limited to training Afghan army personnel and to keeping tabs on Al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups. They don’t want to be a guarantor of Afghan security against a neighbor’s aggression whether it happens openly or by other means.
The Obama Administration’s handling of the Afghan war, in particular the decision to announce a deadline for withdrawal, has been rightly criticized as “no policy, will leave.” But exit at any cost still has costs. Washington did not help itself by burning bridges with India -- the one country which still respects and calls Karzai a friend -- over an entirely avoidable “nanny gate” scandal. The chill in Indo-US relations will have ripples around the region.
While India has advised Karzai to sign the BSA after President Obama urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to use his influence, the downturn in Indo-US relations may dry up the receptivity for the American point of view.
India has generally not criticised US policy in Afghanistan in public, especially its outsourcing of Afghanistan’s security to Pakistan. But New Delhi’s calculations may change in light of Washington’s contempt for relations with India. In short, the Obama Administration may have lost the one big country with influence over Karzai.
Karzai’s new demands for signing the BSA with the US, when looked at from his perspective, suddenly don’t appear to be as self-serving to New Delhi. If he wants the US to help start “practical and meaningful” talks with the Taliban, it suits Indian interests. The US is the only country which can pressure Pakistan to play ball in Afghanistan since Islamabad holds many of the Taliban leaders and their cards.
Any pressure -- if it can indeed be generated -- on Pakistan to stop looking at Afghanistan as “strategic depth” and start looking at it as a real country is welcome from New Delhi’s point of view. Karzai has let it be known through his spokesman that the Taliban must make a public commitment to peace talks and meet the leadership of the High Peace Council, the body designated to work out new arrangements.
This in itself is not an outrageous condition but the last effort undertaken by Washington to bring the Taliban to the table in Qatar ended up as a disaster when the Taliban decided it was an occasion to come out as the government-in-exile rather than work out an agreement.
The Taliban have shown no eagerness to engage with either the Americans or the Karzai government. Pakistan could play a constructive role but there is no sign of that either despite the public pronouncements about wanting a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
The big question is whether Karzai is being obstructionist with the Americans for purely personal gain or does he really believe in getting a better deal for Afghanistan. There are no clear answers as yet, The views expressed in the above article are that of Ms. Seema Sirohi, a senior journalist based in Washington DC.