Obstacles to Long-Term Presence in Afghanistan

The Afghan government, the insurgents and neighboring states are all stakeholders who could undermine the treaty.

Australian ISAF forces on the outskirt Hindu Kush mountains near Zabul, Afghanistan, December 10, 2008
Australian ISAF forces on the outskirt Hindu Kush mountains near Zabul, Afghanistan, December 10, 2008 (Combat Camera)

As deliberations over the final shape of the strategic pact between Afghanistan and the United States are underway, a number of obstacles remain. The Afghan government, the insurgents and neighboring states are all stakeholders who could undermine the final version of the treaty.

The strategic partnership is meant to ensure some residual American presence in Afghanistan after 2014, the shape of which is yet unclear.

The Americans consider their sustained presence in the country crucial to preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven and operating base for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The need to preserve American interests in Central Asia and balance the influence of China and Russia in the region increases the importance of the pact. The loss of Afghanistan as an operating base would prevent the United States from further expanding their influence in Central Asia.

President Barack Obama may also be keen to finalize a deal to dispel the notion that he is bungling America’s future role in Afghanistan. He faces a potentially tough reelection battle in November when his lack of clarity and direction in Afghanistan will probably be criticized by Republicans.

The pact is of critical importance to the Afghan government as well. Having been gradually marginalized by the Americans, who took unilateral steps to engage the Taliban, Hamid Karzai stands to regain his stature in negotiations. The recent spurt of anti-Americanism in Afghanistan will certainly work in the president’s favor and give him added leverage vis-à-vis the United States.

That the balance in Afghan-American relations has shifted was evidenced by the decision to transfer control of the prison facility at Bagram in northeastern Afghanistan to local control at a much earlier date than the United States would have preferred.

Another contentious issue on which the Americans may be compelled to offer concessions against their better judgement is night raids. While a huge source of resentment among the Afghans, the NATO forces consider night rights a highly effective counterinsurgency tactic.

A partnership agreement could jeopardize peace talks with the Taliban insurgents which have now been stalled. Taliban demands — a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country — and the aim of the strategic partnership are contradictory. This puts an additional burden on the United States to work out the details of the pact in such a way that they can preserve their security interests without permanently suspending negotiations.

Finally, the concerns of the regional actors, particularly Iran, have to be taken into consideration.

Tehran considers the American presence in Afghanistan a major threat to its security and a hindrance to its influence in the country. This perception is likely to continue and increase if the United States maintain a presence in the country post 2014.

It is for this reason that Iran has resorted to using its clout within Afghanistan’s political setup and bribes to foment anti-American sentiments and convince parliamentarians to block any strategic partnership.

Moreover, the measured support provided by Iran to the Taliban at present to thwart the American war effort could be scaled up significantly in the long run if the United States are allowed to deploy a residual force in the country.

The pact, it seems, will only define the role and nature of America’s post 2014 presence in the region without minimizing the existing currents and countercurrents. Far from entrenching the status quo, there is the danger that a long-term partnership could actually intensify the conflict.