US-Afghanistan Strategic Pact: Is it a Spoof?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 13 Jun 2012 4 Comments

On May 1, unannounced and under the cover of darkness, President Barack Obama landed in Afghanistan, where he signed yet another US-Afghanistan strategic pact with his Afghan counterpart, President Hamid Karzai. Although stealth landing has now become a standard security procedure in Afghanistan for American VIPs, there were other reasons to do so on May 1. The urgency was ostensibly to enable Pres. Obama to claim “success” at the two-day (May 20-21) NATO summit in Chicago.

On the agenda at this 25th summit was the on-going US/NATO-led “war on terror” in Afghanistan and, in particular, two items: (1) the withdrawal of some US troops from Afghanistan in 2012, and (2) a renewed commitment from the NATO countries after the formal end of the war in 2014. Hosting the summit, President Obama could not possibly leave the strategic pact unsigned. No, that would be tantamount to a failure!

Years ago, in 2005, President George W. Bush and President Hamid Karzai also signed a US-Afghanistan strategic agreement. That agreement gave US forces the green signal to continue using key installations inside Afghanistan, such as the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul, as a logistical center. But that joint declaration left two major issues open: the status of US forces in Afghanistan, and the limits on their actions. In a May 11 article, “US/Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement: ‘We’re done here’…,” on the afghanhindsight website, Tim Foxley points out that the Afghanistan president had reportedly made several demands during his private meeting with Bush. They included Karzai’s desire for more control over US forces in his country and for the return of Afghan detainees from US custody. Pres. Karzai will tell you that none of his demands were met, but the strategic agreement was signed nonetheless.

The new-fangled Agreement

The world was warned beforehand, in a joint statement by President Obama and President Karzai in 2010 in Washington, that yet another strategic agreement, called the “Strategic Partnership Agreement” (SPA), would be signed. It is expected that the SPA will overrule whatever was agreed upon in 2005.

The 9-page SPA is littered with vagueness and generalities, very much in tune with the purpose of this long and useless war, and the way it was fought. A Fact Sheet released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary on May 1 says the SPA is a legally binding executive agreement that details “how the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan will be normalized as we look beyond a responsible end to the war. Through this Agreement, we seek to cement an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates.”

The Fact Sheet also says: “The Agreement signed today affirms that cooperation between Afghanistan and the United States is based on mutual respect and shared interests. In this Agreement, we commit ourselves to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan. The Agreement is not only a signal of the United States’ long-term commitment to Afghanistan, but it enshrines our commitments to one another and a common vision for our relationship and Afghanistan’s future. US commitments to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation are matched by Afghan commitments to strengthen accountability, transparency, oversight and to protect the human rights of all Afghans — men and women.

“In addition to recognizing the progress that has been made together over the past 10 years, the Strategic Partnership Agreement includes mutual commitments in the areas of: Protecting and Promoting Shared Democratic Values; Advancing Long-Term Security; Reinforcing Regional Security and Cooperation; Social and Economic Development; and Strengthening Afghan Institutions and Governance.

Serious Concerns

In an April 10 article, Dilawar Sherzai of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan pointed to one of the dominant issues: the permanent US bases in Afghanistan. Some of the authorities in Afghanistan and, even more so, authorities of the regional countries, have serious concerns about permanent US bases. Afghanistan’s neighbors believe that Washington can use these permanent bases against them and can also pursue its own political aims (and games) throughout the region as long as the bases are in the neighborhood.

Obama has said that no permanent US bases will be involved, but the SPA requires Afghanistan to let US forces use Afghan bases. As the White House Fact Sheet says: “The Agreement provides for the possibility of US forces in Afghanistan after 2014, for the purposes of training Afghan Forces and targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda, and commits the United States and Afghanistan to initiate negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement to supersede our current Status of Forces Agreement. The United States will also designate Afghanistan a “Major Non-NATO Ally” to provide a long-term framework for security and defense cooperation.”

Does all that mean the US will have permanent bases, or will not have permanent bases?

The SPA is also committed to “our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates.” However, the SPA makes no mention of the Taliban, the insurgents US and NATO troops are killing every day. It is likely that the Taliban were deliberately kept out of the document so that the US and Karzai could strike deals with them, even bring them to power in the future, if the situation so demands.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

On the issue of al-Qaeda, Washington has said so many things that it is impossible to decipher the truth. Two years ago, on June 27, 2010, then-CIA chief and now US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta went on record claiming that al-Qaeda’s leadership was “weaker than ever,” and that as few as 50 members of the terror group were in Afghanistan as US forces worked to flush out mastermind Osama Bin Laden. Panetta also said the Central Intelligence Agency and US forces had killed or captured at least half the leadership of al-Qaeda.

A year later, on June 18, 2011, the New York Times reported the following: “As the Obama administration nears a crucial decision on how rapidly to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan, high-ranking officials say that al-Qaeda’s original network in the region has been crippled, providing a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops.

“The officials said the intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan — most dramatically the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — had left al-Qaeda paralyzed, with its leaders either dead or pinned down in the frontier area near Afghanistan. Of 30 prominent members of the terrorist organization in the region identified by intelligence agencies as targets, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half, they said, reducing the threat they pose.”

On May 21, 2012, while the NATO Summit in Chicago was in progress, James Kilmore of the Daily Telegraph said, “President Barack Obama declared that the Afghan war was now ‘effectively over,’ while David Cameron said the handover plan was ‘on track and on target.’ However, despite their optimistic appraisal, NATO officials conceded the possibility of al-Qaeda and other groups returning after the West’s withdrawal. ‘It is unrealistic to assume that Afghanistan is going to be completely secure and there is no possibility of a terrorist threat reemerging,’ said a senior British official.”

On May 30, according to Associated Press, Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby stated that al-Qaeda has found places it can plan and train, but he was not specific about locations. “He said elements of the terrorist group move back and forth from Pakistan. … and that ‘any number’ of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of US and NATO forces there.”

Has al-Qaeda been weakened in Afghanistan during these long years of war, or is it still strong?

Depends on your point of view

Foxley notes that the phrasing of the SAP is very generic, allowing it to mean whatever a future American president might want it to mean — more troops/money, less troops/money, or no troops/money at all.

States Foxley: “I sense that this has been written through the ‘we’re done here’ spectacles of President Obama and the ‘I’m fed up being told what to do’ spectacles of Karzai. In this joint document, the two presidents clearly felt it necessary to spell out that no ‘permanent’ US bases were planned — yet it would have been strange if the US and Afghan governments had announced the establishment of a permanent presence. The statement was presumably intended to head off potential misgivings amongst the Afghan population, but also probably aimed at Iran and the Taliban, given both their historic and current sensitivities to this issue.”

How little a role this document will play in developing a “civilized” relationship between a poor country and a distant arrogant power became evident on June 7 when a NATO airstrike killed 18 Afghans in Logar province. Seven of them were children, and five were women attending a wedding ceremony.

Not only angry over the killing of innocent Afghans by foreign troops, President Karzai pointed out that this is a violation of the pact signed by the US and Afghanistan in April. That pact had put the Afghan government in charge of most such “special operations” — a move designed to resolve some of the longstanding tension.

Afghan presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi told the media that the Logar strike was the fifth incident of civilian casualties from US unilateral actions since the long-term partnership agreement (A pact signed by the Afghan government and the US military in April 2012 putting Afghans in charge of joint raids in villages) signed. Faizl also said that Kabul felt that the United States was not holding to the promises it made in that accord, as well as a larger strategic partnership agreement signed last month. He indicated that President Karzai and his advisers have decided that if such an incident happened again they would consider it a breach of the special operations pact. That may be true, but Washington really does not care.

The most that can be said about what this new document may have achieved, as one analyst pointed out, is that Obama has initiated a new phase in the US exit strategy from Afghanistan, including a narrower US mission and an end to the counterinsurgency approach toward military operations. His objective is to end America’s longest war, on schedule, in 2014.

Vagueness and Ineptitude All Around

Like the Chicago Summit, the withdrawal of troops and the entire 10-year-long war in Afghanistan, the SPA document is yet another reflection of vagueness and ineptitude by the Obama administration and NATO.

Take for instance the case of US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, a much-acclaimed, hard-boiled, professional American diplomat. On April 8, Crocker said: “As President Obama has said, we are making sure this transition is not abrupt, but a path marked by benchmarks and steps that build Afghan capacity. … We hope now to conclude our strategic partnership negotiations with the government of Afghanistan ahead of the Chicago NATO summit in May.” Then, a day after the NATO summit was over, the same Ryan Crocker, suddenly citing “bad health conditions,” resigned, leaving the path for President Obama alone to figure out.

Is it what occurred, or did not occur, in Chicago that gave new, more intense “back pains” to Ambassador Crocker? In Chicago, for instance, the future of Afghanistan was hardly discussed. The discussion on Afghanistan was dominated by two issues: (1) reopening NATO’s supply route through Pakistan and (2) French President Francoise Hollande’s determination to uphold his election pledge of withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, thus reneging on his predecessor’s commitment on a later timeline.

In the May 24 edition of News International, Pakistan’s retired vice admiral, Taj M. Khattak, pointed out that “though the summit has downplayed the effect of a French withdrawal before the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) even starts going into support role, the repercussions can be serious if this trend becomes a voice in other member and partner countries. On NATO’s supply routes through Pakistan, the Americans were visibly irritated at not being successful in arm-twisting Pakistan after months of engagement when Colin Powell could do this, and much more, with just one long-distance call.”

Tyranny of the (American) Ballot Box

The crux of the problem lies with the Obama administration’s geostrategic interest in staying in Afghanistan to deny regional powers the opportunity to incorporate the country into the region. This was pointed out by Sun Zhuangzhi, a research scholar with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in a March 24, 2010, article in China Daily. Expressing his concern over the Obama administration’s Af-Pak policies, Sun said: “It is clear that the US would like to maintain its influence over Afghanistan even after withdrawing its troops, no matter when that happens. Which means it would not allow regional powers such as China to play a greater role in Afghan affairs.”

At a July 20, 2010, international conference attended by the senior officials of 70 countries, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted the importance of recognizing Afghanistan’s future “neutral status,” which would preclude any sort of permanent foreign military presence there. “The restoration of the neutral status of Afghanistan is designed to become one of the key factors of creating an atmosphere of good-neighborly relations and cooperation in the region,” the Russian minister said.

The failure of America’s 10-year-long war in Afghanistan, carried out by two highly inadequate presidents, draining billions and billions of taxpayers’ dollars and sacrificing thousands of human lives without clearly stating what those lives were sacrificed for, cannot be undone by the SPA.

Now Obama is gearing up to collect every loose vote hanging around anywhere in this large republic. His future decisions on Afghanistan, or anything else, will be determined not on the basis of reason or rationality, but whether such decisions will give him a leg up against his opponent in November.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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