One way or the other most American troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and the war as we know it will end. The question now being decided in fraught negotiations between Washington and Kabul is whether the U.S. can purchase the right to keep a military presence in Afghanistan after the main war effort is over that can protect national interests and launch targeted operations against terrorists. If the Afghan government agrees to the plan currently being discussed what remains after 2014 will be a much smaller more specialized force refocused from fighting the Taliban and maintaining security to hunting hardcore al Qaeda affiliates across the region.
Echoes of Iraq and the failed negotiations to keep a military force in that country have carried over into the debate about Afghanistan and obscured what is really at stake there. Here is what is really at stake: betting that a small footprint rented at extortionist costs from a corrupt and failing state can be used by U.S. special operations forces to fight jihadist networks and project power over neighboring Iran and Pakistan. It will take years or decades to know how the bet pays off but the immediate costs of an agreement will be another decade of low intensity conflict in south Asia for America’s military and billions more dollars in aid from American taxpayers.
The security agreement being discussed leaves a lot uncertain but it does resolve some critical questions about a future military commitment. The long running debate about how to fight the war in Afghanistan—as a counter-insurgency campaign focused on building stable institutions and winning hearts and minds, or as a counter-terrorist operation hunting down the most dangerous jihadists—has been decided. After 2014, if American troops stay, Afghanistan will be a counter-terror mission.
It’s an approach spelled out in a letter written from President Obama to Afghan president Hamid Karzai striking a conciliatory note as it pushes for agreement on America’s future military role in Afghanistan. In the first paragraph of that letter, President Obama writes: “Under this Agreement, we will be cooperating in training, advising, and assisting your forces and in a targeted, smaller counterterrorism mission as we continue to help strengthen Afghanistan's own growing counterterrorism capabilities.”
The blueprint for America’s future mission in Afghanistan is contained in the new bilateral security agreement between the two countries that President Obama addresses in his letter. Early reporting, backed up by statements from U.S. officials, indicated that both parties agreed to the draft of the agreement but since then Karzai has placed new conditions on the plan and practiced a brinksmanship approach to negotiations.
In a speech on Thursday before the Loya Jirga, a council of Afghan elders, Karzai spoke bitterly and theatrically about his poor relationship with the Americans while still arguing for the necessity of allowing U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan. And then, in a move that surprised American officials, Karzai declared that he would delay a final resolution on the security agreement until next year’s election of a new Afghan president, a position that was described as “not practical nor possible” by The State Department whose spokespeople insisted that the plan needed to be signed by the end of 2013.
Without signatures on the deal, nothing is certain and a lot can change between suspicious and aggrieved partners like Karzai and the U.S. But even if a final agreement differs from the current document, or the deal falls through altogether, the draft gives a clear reading of both country’s interests and conditions for keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The short version of the agreement is this: Afghanistan wants American forces to focus on assisting the Afghan security forces, drastically limit their combat role to only conduct operations against al Qaeda-like terrorists, and be prohibited from entering Afghan homes in all but life threatening situations. In return for allowing the U.S. to maintain a foothold in Afghanistan Kabul expects the money to keep flowing.
The security agreement states that the American military mission will be focused on assisting the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) with future U.S. funding going to training and equipping the Afghan forces. The terms specify that: “The United States shall direct appropriate funds through Afghan Government budgetary mechanisms, to be managed by relevant Afghan institutions.” This is known as direct assistance and means that all the cash is delivered straight to the Afghan government and it’s up to them to distribute it to its intended recipients. It’s a process that has already led to hundreds of millions—if not billions—of missing and wasted dollars in U.S. aid.
John F. Sopko, who heads the agency created by Congress to monitor spending in Afghanistan, addressed the risks involved in direct assistance when he testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in April of this year. Sopko concluded his testimony by warning that “capacity challenges in the Afghan ministries coupled with the difficulties of providing assistance in a conflict zone riddled with corruption will also put direct assistance funds at risk of being wasted.” SIGAR, the agency that Sopko heads, has already seen its oversight reduced as U.S. troops draw down and it loses the ability to securely access areas where the money is being spent.
With far fewer troops left in the country after 2014 it is unclear how the agency would continue to conduct audits and report to Congress on how U.S. money is being spent. In a statement to The Daily Beast, SIGAR said that it is: “…developing its post-2014 oversight plans for Afghanistan. While oversight access will likely be very limited post-2014, SIGAR is committed to exploring all avenues for conducting oversight of U.S. taxpayer money.” The agency plans to hold a symposium on third party monitoring next year to explore ways it can continue to oversee spending in Afghanistan even without a physical presence in the country.
The question is why is the U.S. wants to stay another decade in Afghanistan paying enormous sums for stringent restrictions on what the military is allowed to do. A possible answer lies in how the language of the security agreement is interpreted.
In its second article addressing “purpose and Scope” the agreement states that: “Unless otherwise mutually agreed, United States forces shall not conduct combat operations in Afghanistan.” It seems like a straightforward end to the U.S. military’s ability to independently pursue military objectives in Afghanistan but two further points complicate the issue and suggest that there are still ways for U.S. forces to conduct operations.
The first opening is in the fourth point of the second article, which grants that: “U.S. military operations to defeat al-Qaida and its affiliates may be appropriate in the common fight against terrorism.” Though this point goes on to discourage “unilateral U.S. military counter-terrorism operations” it doesn’t rule them out. In practice, if a target from al Qaeda or an affiliated group were identified, U.S. troops would be able to pursue them though they would not be able to raid an Afghan home without partnered Afghan forces leading the operation.
The stated basis for the security agreement and the commitment of U.S. forces to another decade in Afghanistan, is to train and assist the Afghan security forces. The training and advisory mission can easily be used to stage joint military operations that may be American led and directed against U.S. targets but would appear to uphold the terms of the agreement as long as there was a uniformed Afghan presence involved in any actions undertaken.
No official statement has been made yet about the size and composition of American forces that would remain in Afghanistan but estimates have ranged from 4,000 to 15,000 with most sources citing 7-8,000. Those figures provide another strong clue about the nature of a future mission in Afghanistan. The size of the proposed force is too small to have a broad security presence but is large enough to mass in key strategic locations in the event that Afghan forces or key institutions are under attack by the Taliban or other insurgent groups. The size of the force and the type of mission described in the security agreement also indicate that it will likely be composed heavily of special operations troops who have the most experience at both training foreign armies and conducting targeted counter-terror operations.
Training the Afghan security forces is not merely a pretext for other counter-terror operations, though it may also be that. It is a mission that countless U.S. service members have committed themselves to, some of them sacrificing their lives in the process, with the honest goal of improving the foreign force and helping the Afghans achieve peace and stability. Partnerships between local U.S. units and Afghan forces have been hard built and strenuously tested as the two armies have fought together against common enemies. But that larger training and partnership mission will end when the majority of U.S. forces leave. For many Afghan military units the days of partnership with U.S. forces are already over—or soon will be. Though the relationships have been strained at times they have also produced strong alliances and for many Afghan troops the U.S. presence brought vital supplies necessary for operations and a level of firepower—air support most critically—that were essential in combat and prevented the Taliban and other groups from being able to overtake government and security forces.
If a smaller U.S. element remains past 2014 it will be able to advise the Afghans and continue to develop their forces through training and other forms of assistance, including supporting them in combat in some cases, but maintaining security will belong to the Afghans.
It remains to be seen what a final agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan will look like, assuming one is reached, and then the only real test will be how it is interpreted on the ground in years to come. But even if the draft bilateral agreement is never signed, it offers key insights into the broad aims of both parties and in its wording, which is strict enough to limit most military operations but gives enough room for the U.S. to pursue targets it considers vital, it gives a glimpse of what the future may look like.