The savage act of a disturbed soldier in Kandahar and the earlier Quran burning riots has thrown in sharp relief the problems inherent in the broader US strategy to wind down the war in Afghanistan. It also opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions regarding the sustainability of the Strategic Partnership Agreement likely to be announced during the upcoming Chicago summit in May this year.

By Dr. Simbal khan

The ink had barely dried on the agreement signed by Afghan defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak and U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of the NATO force, on the Bagram prison transfer last week, when allegedly a lone US soldier stationed in Kandahar shot and killed 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood. According to reports he murdered 16 Afghans in two villages, Najiban and Alikozai, just outside his base in the Zangabad area of Panjwai district. The base in Panjwai apparently was a small Special Forces outpost. Some reports suggest that he was part of the VSO or the Village Stability Operations team under the operational command of the Special Forces detachment commander tasked with building up village self-defence forces against the Taliban. The post 2014 transition plan relies heavily on the idea of such Special Forces Units stationed on such remote outposts dotting the 100 or so designated Key Terrain districts scattered around Afghanistan. These outposts straddle critical transport routes and other important infrastructure. 

The savage act of a disturbed soldier in Kandahar and the earlier Quran burning riots has thrown in sharp relief the problems inherent in the broader US strategy to wind down the war in Afghanistan. It also opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions regarding the sustainability of the Strategic Partnership Agreement likely to be announced during the upcoming Chicago summit in May this year.

  LGBT move towards Pakistan

Last week it appeared Afghanistan and the US moved a step closer to finalizing the Strategic Partnership Agreement with the signing of the deal to hand over the prison at Bagram Airbase, a major US run detention facility, to Afghan control.  Control over Bagram and other detention facilities and differences over the Special Forces led night raids, are two issues that have apparently thwarted progress towards the Strategic Partnership Agreement between Washington and Kabul, under negotiations for over a year. In November 2011 the grand Loya Jirga convened specially by President Karzai to seek endorsement for the Agreement also conditioned the signing on the end to night raids, handover of detention facilities, and making US personnel accountable to Afghan courts.

To the credit of strategic communication experts, both in DC and Kabul, the exclusive focus on the twin issues of detention centres and night raids for the past one year, has allowed both sides to create an illusion of hard won negotiations. There are reports that the US military is already completing a new detention facility close to the one being handed over to the Afghan authorities.

Some analysts also believe that the sticking point of night raids will be similarly resolved whereby the US will pledge an end to night raids by US Special forces and claim a more strategic but defensive role for its residual force, before signing the Strategic Partnership Agreement. Progress on negotiations with the Taliban expected to be put into full gear at the Chicago summit and announcing an end to Al Qaeda presence inside Afghanistan will allow US to step back from its counter terror agenda and hence declare an end to night raids.

  Women Drive House Hunting in Bangladesh, Philippines and Mexico

Meeting important bench marks and timelines set in Washington, however, does not mean that the realities on the ground are as amenable to spin. The question of strategic partnership Agreement is far more complex than the issue of detention facilities and night raids. Incidents like the Panjwai killings and Quran burning will make negotiations more difficult but not impossible. For the Karzai government, or any successive Afghan government for that matter, US engagement both financial and security, will remain critical for survival, in the short term at least.

For the US, the Strategic Partnership Agreement is throwing up a whole other set of complications. The Agreement provides a framework for future US support to Afghanistan beyond 2014, when all foreign combat troops are due to leave. A successful withdrawal, which also ensures that Afghanistan will not slip back into factional war, would mean that some political accommodation with the Taliban must be arrived at. The security component of the Partnership Agreement which spells out the expected size, deployment, basing and role of the US residual force is likely to be subject of discussions with the Taliban. The Taliban have declared time and again they will not accept US military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. It is not clear however, if a tacit understanding cannot be reached with the Taliban over the issue of US bases. Such a secret understanding will of course preclude any public US-Taliban peace deal that could kick start a broader political peace process in Afghanistan.

Also, the security aspects of the Partnership Agreement which relate to the long-term basing of US Special forces and the maintenance of US Strategic air capabilities in Afghanistan, is likely to be resisted by regional countries such as Iran, China, Russia and Pakistan. NATO countries find themselves in a catch 22 situation as they also need to get the very same regional countries on board to ensure the withdrawal of their combat forces in an orderly manner, in a short span of time. For withdrawing armies all roads out of Afghanistan are a logistical nightmare and moving heavy equipment by air is unfeasible. With Pakistan’s ground transit lines closed for the last three and a half months the problems for NATO countries planning an orderly pull out have compounded. The only two routes out of Afghanistan are the Pakistani port facilities or Central Asian and Russian railway networks. As convoys of equipment travelling through Afghanistan to their points of embarkation are also likely to be easy targets for the Taliban, there is growing urgency among NATO countries for bringing them into the political process sooner than later.A host of complex issues are challenging both the US and the Afghan government as they struggle to meet approaching timelines in an environment of rapidly disintegrating trust between Afghan people and the foreign troops. The stagnating security situation and the failure of political processes to take off completely is adding dangerous volatility and making change event based and more uncertain.

Comments