BACKGROUND: Karzai and Obama agreed to accelerate the timetable to this spring, when the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is scheduled to assume the lead combat role throughout the country from the foreign military coalition supporting the Afghan government. This NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) currently consists of 100,000 troops, the majority from the U.S., but will decrease in size and move to a support role of training, advising, and assisting the ANSF.
In justifying the decision to accelerate their military transition at a joint news conference following their January 11 meeting, Obama cited the success of the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan in defeating al-Qaeda, weakening the Taliban, and providing the ANSF with time to grow in size and capabilities. “As planned, some 352,000 Afghan soldiers and police are now in training or on duty,” Obama told a White House news conference. “Most missions are already being led by Afghan forces.” But Obama offered no new information on the pace of the planned U.S. troop reduction from Afghanistan, simply saying that the U.S. would conduct “a responsible drawdown that protects the gains our troops have made.”
Karzai professed to be indifferent to the number of U.S. troops that would remain in Afghanistan, saying that the quality of the overall relationship mattered more. Even so, he welcomed the withdrawal decision as signifying U.S. respect for Afghan sovereignty, noting that the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to transfer to Afghan control all the detention centers and detainees in Afghanistan now under the Pentagon.
The U.S. – Afghan dispute over the control of the country’s prison system has also not really been solved. After Karzai put his foot down on this demand, the Pentagon has transferred thousands of its detainees to Afghan government supervision, though it is possible that some of the most dangerous remain under U.S. custody or were moved elsewhere. The U.S. fears that the Afghans will employ a “catch and release” policy in which U.S. forces capture insurgents who are then released by the Afghans and quickly rejoin the battle.
In addition, Karzai welcomed that foreign troops would no longer deploy in Afghan villages but leave it to ANSF units to maintain local security. He said the U.S. – Afghan relationship should evolve from its current unbalanced nature to that resembling the U.S. and Germany or Turkey, which host permanent and temporary U.S. military bases but also have a rich non-military relationship with the U.S. and other countries. Obama confirmed that the pullback of U.S. troops from the villages should remove a source of friction between the two countries.
Obama also discussed the nature of the post-2014 Afghan - U.S. security cooperation, saying it would respect Afghan sovereignty and aim to fulfill the two missions of targeting terrorists and training, advising, and assisting the ANSF. Obama said he hoped the two governments would reach a bilateral security agreement, which would replace their expiring Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) later this year. He insisted that a new bilateral security agreement should provide immunity for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which Karzai accepted as an issue on parity with Afghan control over all detainees and the absence of U.S. troops in Afghan villages. However, the two presidents provided few details how they plan to implement the Strategic Partnership they signed last year in Kabul. Its provisions call for deepening economic and other ties between the two countries as well as an Afghan government commitment to make further social, economic, and political reforms.
IMPLICATIONS: The presidents reaffirmed their interest in two political reconciliations. First, they supported further efforts to achieve a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Karzai openly endorsed the proposal that the Taliban open an office in Qatar to facilitate the peace talks, though he insisted that the Taliban’s office in Doha would “engage in direct talks” with representatives of his government, specifically the Afghan High Council for Peace. The two presidents also cited recent improvements in Afghan-Pakistan and U.S.-Pakistan ties and wanted to see more concrete measures such as renewed efforts to clamp down on the sanctuaries enjoyed by Afghan Taliban guerrillas in northwest Pakistan. Obama explicitly said that Kabul and Islamabad would have to assume the lead roles in reaching a diplomatic settlement on the sanctuary issue, saying that Washington would try to facilitate their initiatives.
The meetings in Washington failed to address some of the key issues that will determine the fate of the Afghan-U.S. partnership. These include the issues of how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 and also how rapidly the others will depart. Despite its growing responsibilities, the Afghan National Army (ANA) still suffers from certain weaknesses and gaps, such as inadequate logistics and intelligence, little aviation and firepower, and a poor ability to detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices. ANA recruits receive only modestly useful training that focuses on marching rather than fighting. The fact that a third of the force must be replaced each year makes it hard to build the force’s capabilities. Not only do one fourth of the recruits fail to reenlist after their three-year term is over, but ANA units suffer from high desertion and defection rates.
The Afghan-U.S. discussions did not resolve uncertainties concerning the peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and their foreign backers as well as how Karzai will transfer power to his duly elected successor in 2014. The Afghan government demands a major role in any peace talks, whereas the Taliban want to talk only with the U.S. and other foreign governments. Such direct dialogue with Western governments would enhance their legitimacy and weaken Karzai’s perceived authority. But the Afghan government rightly insists on having a decisive say in any power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. Afghan officials would naturally balk at any deal resembling an international attempt to yield a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of all foreign troops and the collapse of the internally recognized Kabul government. Conversely, while Obama said that genuine reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban required the latter to accept Afghanistan’s post-2011 constitution, Taliban representatives have declined to do so. Another problem is the reemergence of the militias. Various warlords are seeking to reestablish their independent military forces, increasing the risk that Afghanistan will return to civil war after 2014.
Doubts remain about Karzai’s commitment to fighting corruption, which dilutes foreign assistance by discouraging some contributions and diverting others through local structures, such as through tribal bodies and non-governmental organizations, with adverse effects on the Afghan state capacity building efforts. While acknowledging that as a problem, Karzai again described local corruption as a foreign import into Afghanistan, saying that the problem could not be solved “unless there is cooperation between us and our international partners on correcting some of the methods or applications of delivery of assistance to Afghanistan.” In the past, Karzai had blamed foreign countries for paying exorbitant sums to profiteering defense suppliers and for their employing private security contractors who became a law unto themselves.
CONCLUSIONS: Efforts to improve Afghan governance are largely on hold for now as the local and foreign power brokers see what comes of the NATO combat withdrawal, the peace talks, and the 2014 national elections in Afghanistan. Karzai reaffirmed that Afghanistan would hold free and fair elections in 2014 with international observers but without undue foreign interference. As the ballot approaches, the declining U.S. military presence and non-military assistance to Afghanistan is reducing U.S. leverage in this and other areas. Yet, the 2014 national elections could be the key test for this new arrangement. If the Afghan government’s political institutions perform as badly as in the 2009 ballot, if the ANSF fails to provide a safe and secure electoral environment, or if Karzai decides to renege on his vow not run for reelection, then international enthusiasm for the entire Afghan project would substantially diminish.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.