President Karzai’s Visit to Washington – An Analysis
By: Bassam Javed
President Obama invited Afghan President Karzai to visit Washington early this month to douse an inflamed relationship between the two countries. The US President’s invitational gesture soon after reassuming his second term reflected Obama’s compulsion to engage with the divisive leader to strategize his troops’ speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan. The visit was given a high priority for redemption of US Afghan Strategy wherein the former seeks a peaceful withdrawal from Afghanistan.
President Karzai’s engagement in Washington was double folded. One; to apprise US authorities on progress in reconciliation efforts with Taliban especially in the backdrop of Pakistan’s cooperative attitude and two; the placement and subsequent immunity to residual US troops for their military actions in Afghanistan beyond 2014. History bespeaks that most of the military wars ultimately ended through negotiations either between warring parties directly or indirectly through third party’s intervention. Afghan war is also heading towards that end. As many coalition partners of the US led military alliance in Afghanistan have withdrawn their troops from the war like France and Canada with more countries to follow, US is running short on its partners in the coalition. In view of the thinning down of the US led Afghan coalition partners, United States foresees its inability to handle fall outs of withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan alone. To ease withdrawal dynamics for its forces it has already started negotiating with some of the Taliban factions. The US administration is convinced that use of military force will no more make it easier for its forces to withdraw from Afghanistan and as such a recourse to negotiating with the Taliban was the only option to avoid making withdrawal process a total disaster.
When Karzai landed in Washington, he knew that Afghan coalition partners have already gone wary of war due to their respective national pressures and shrinking budgets. He estimated that in the backdrop of crippling Afghan war coalition, US desire to place some residual troops beyond 2014 can be cashed to force US meet Afghan demands. However, his hopes were dashed when he learnt that US too is contemplating not to keep US troops at all in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The announcement made by White House however could be ploy to force Karzai accept requisite immunity clauses for residual troops in Afghanistan. Whatever diplomatic gimmicks were exercised, the fact is that there is growing demand within the US political and military circles to keep some number of US troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. They opine that security in Afghanistan will be affected following exit of the US forces mandating some presence of US troops in Afghanistan to stem immediate fall outs of the withdrawal and sustain Afghan government. They also opine that some US military presence, stipulated to be around nine-thousand, would also bolster the ability of US to keep Iran and Pakistan’s ingress into Afghan affairs at bay after the withdrawal.
During Presidential parleys, Karzai proposed US to grant Afghanistan some right in prosecuting the rogue US troops under Afghan law to give some sort of legitimacy to his rule. US rejected the proposal as it had also not approved the similar proposal put forward by Iraqi Prime Minister. Non acceptance by Iraqi Prime Minister on the immunity clauses of US forces after the war resulted in a total pull out of US forces from Iraq. Karzai knows that his security forces’ lacked capability to maintain law and order sequel to an abrupt withdrawal of US Forces from Afghanistan. In an uncertain end war scenario, he also wants to spend his last year in office ensuring that no harm comes to him or his coterie of close associates. Before that happens, he may be no more in the seat of power as he would not be able to contest next general elections scheduled in early part of the next year. There is a joke doing rounds in US and Afghanistan that says that”… he will leave Afghanistan before the Americans do.” On the other hand President Obama would like to end Afghan war on a note that preserves US national security interests. Obama neither used the bilateral interaction to decide on number of residual troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 nor agreed to Karzai’s demand for putting residual forces’ under Afghan law. He has decided to wait and see how the dynamics of the Afghan war evolve at the end of this year, 2013. Karzai’s trip to Washington was thus an exercise to improve the bilateral relationship only and as such no early changes could be seen in political realm of Afghanistan.
Reliable sources however have revealed that what all that was discussed comprised consultations on a strategic vision for a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan besides its security and economic transition. Obama in a bid to pave the way for a speedy US withdrawal from Afghanistan said on the occasion that presently Afghan Forces lead around eighty percent of operations against insurgents and in the fourth phase of transition commencing February, ANF would be able to lead in securing ninety percent of Afghan population. He also declared that ISAF role will transform from combat to support by middle of this year heralding the fifth and final phase of transition. The US President also reaffirmed that out of the promised financial aids at Tokyo and Chicago Conferences by the coalition partners at least fifty percent will be channeled through the national budget of Afghan government.
Both the Presidents also reaffirmed that reconciliation in Afghanistan must be led and owned by Afghans with Pakistan to play a significant role. There was also an agreement to open an office in Doha for Taliban pending respective parties’ approvals. With the likelihood of Afghanistan declining immunity to US actions in Afghanistan, there is a possibility that ‘zero option’ may ultimately be utilized to quit Afghanistan in totality. President Obama made it very clear in a joint press conference after the parleys that all U.S. security agreements with other countries contained such immunity and Afghanistan's would be no different. Whether that binding agreement gets signed by the two countries to their respective satisfactions is a big question mark? The draft strategic agreement containing the immunity provision for US troops’ military actions against Afghans will be put up for approval or otherwise by Afghanistan by end of this year.
Many important issues that contribute to Afghan end game still need crystallization into agreements amongst Afghan warring factions, Kabul regime and other international players in the Afghan war. One issue is continuation in provision of funds by the international community to enable ANF sustain its strength and working as an integrated force capable of defending its people. Second issue is taking over of Bagram prison by Afghan authorities. Third issue is evolving general consensus amongst Taliban factions and seeking Qatar’s consent to allow opening up a Taliban office in its capital city, Doha and fourth; whether residual US forces, that US may decide to keep in Afghanistan beyond 2014, would be granted total immunity or not, are some other issues that need to be settled before the Afghan comes to an end. Whatever the dynamics of ending the Afghan war, Pakistan is certain to get a major role in stabilizing Afghanistan that will be a challenge as well as an opportunity and needs to be treaded well.