This essay was originally published in the National Interest. It can be read here in its original form.
A cascade of recent incidents and missteps, including the tragic killing of sixteen sleeping Afghan villagers by a U.S. soldier in Kandahar and the burning of Korans at the Bagram air base, has riled many and escalated tensions between the United States and Afghanistan. The episodes have also effectively endangered U.S. efforts to work closely with Afghan security forces as the country transitions to Afghan control. In addition, it has prompted regular calls that the United States should immediately end the Afghan mission and withdraw its troops. And all of this comes at a time when Washington and Kabul are still at odds over a now long-negotiated strategic-partnership agreement, which many believe will be inked before the NATO Chicago Summit in May. It is perhaps natural for both Americans and Afghans to consider why such an arrangement is important.
While a sizable number of Afghans believe that their country needs such a partnership for the sustainability of their security and economy, there is also a growing perception, mostly among Afghan officials, that the United States needs Afghanistan more than the other way around. These views are often heard among the chattering class of government officials in Kabul who work to create circumstances that are neither in the best interest of Afghanistan nor conducive to a lasting U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. But Afghans should not ask why such a partnership with the United States is needed—but rather what is at stake if such an agreement is not finalized.
It’s often downplayed or forgotten, but the United States has direct national-security interests in Afghanistan. Over the years, the United States grappled with several serious security challenges that stemmed from Taliban control of the country in the 1990s, including the sanctuary provided to international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these elements were simply rerouted, not defeated, and are still potent and at large. An accelerated U.S. troop withdrawal would most likely result in a situation reminiscent of the 1990s.
Intransigence and dismissal of a strategic-partnership agreement potentially risks Afghanistan’s enduring strategic presence in the region. Without an agreement, Afghanistan may suffer continued interference in its internal affairs. This is why regional actors such as Pakistan and Iran, and seditious elements like the Taliban, are opposed to an enduring U.S. presence in the region and will not help end the decade-long Afghan conflict.
Foundations of Stability
The foreign aid and capital currently keeping Afghanistan afloat will likely exit the country in tandem with the 2014 drawdown of foreign combat forces. Without lasting U.S. support and $8 to $10 billion in open-ended funding every year—with at least half that amount guaranteed by the strategic pact—running the government in Kabul as well as operating and sustaining the current growth level of the Afghan army and police beyond 2014 will be virtually impossible. Despite the frivolous differences, nonstrategic preconditions and red lines currently in play between the two parties in finalizing the pact, Afghan leaders must recognize that they cannot afford to compromise the lives and security of millions of Afghans and the future stability of the country and region as a whole.
One section of the strategic pact draft also calls for the United States to build detention facilities for prisoners after they are transferred from the Parwan detention facility—a site comparable to Guantanamo Bay prison—to Afghan control. What is the cost associated with operating these prisons? Will the Afghan government be able to operate and sustain the site? A strategic agreement must support these efforts through both financial commitments and training and mentoring the Afghan security personnel.
The agreement will also help ensure an American security, economic and political commitment to Afghanistan, and it will provide the legal basis for the U.S. military to remain for at least a decade after 2014—the deadline for the end of the NATO combat mission. As part of the agreement, the United States will remain in Afghanistan but with a lighter military footprint; its presence will consist mostly of U.S. special-operations forces focused on counterterrorism as well as trainers and advisers for the Afghan National Security Forces. A U.S. civilian presence would continue to build and support Afghanistan’s nascent democratic structures, devise mechanisms to develop Afghanistan's fragile economy and ultimately help ensure regional stability.
The heightened tensions of the past few weeks have also led many in the United States to question the possibility of a partnership agreement, leading some prominent political figures, even the hawkish Senator Lindsey Graham, to suggest removing all U.S. troops from the country. While it may appear an easy and seductive solution, such calls are both irresponsible and misleading—and implicitly acknowledge that the United States has failed in Afghanistan. At the same time, employing and acting upon such a rash strategy isn’t only impractical but also jeopardizes hard-earned achievements and ignores the ultimate sacrifices made by Americans and Afghans. It is undeniable that Afghanistan’s current trajectory is mired with political and economic uncertainty, insecurity and many other problems. But it’s a far cry from a government controlled by the Taliban that is working actively to undermine American and regional security.
As long as the U.S. and Afghan governments are at odds, particularly over important but still relatively marginal issues such as the night raids, the Taliban will prosper. Only continuing cooperation between Washington and Kabul will effectively deter the Taliban and other subversive regional elements. The recent agreement on the gradual U.S. transfer of detainees to Afghan control is being touted as a compromise and is a significant breakthrough that effectively overcomes one of the major hindrances to signing the pact—one less item the Taliban can exploit to drive a wedge between Washington and Kabul.
The United States needs realistic goals. With the end of NATO combat mission looming, U.S. objectives should be increasingly focused on providing the Afghan government the tools and expertise necessary to fight and contain insurgency as they take the lead on security. A strategic partnership agreement between Washington and Kabul is best placed to guarantee this cooperation long after the last foreign troops leave the country.
Whether either side likes it or not, Afghanistan and the United States are now codependent. The strategic partnership agreement reinforces this reality. Such a compact will hurt only one actor: the Taliban. The sooner an agreement is reached and signed, the sooner the interests of both countries can be secured.
Javid Ahmad is a program coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The views reflected here are his own.