U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani after a trilateral meeting in Brussels, Belgium, April 24, 2013.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani after a trilateral meeting in Brussels, Belgium, April 24, 2013. State Department Photo

Close to a Deal: U.S., Afghans Agree on Single Text

A bilateral security agreement is reachable by October, insiders say. But then what? By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

For United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the focus is on bringing about the war’s “responsible end.” Inside the country, however, the war is very much on and the question of how Afghan forces will fare once the foreigners leave remains. Now, some questions about future security look closer to being answered.

Sources familiar with talks on a bilateral security deal between Washington and Kabul that would formalize the post-2014 relationship say a deal is likely to come by the U.S.’s desired October deadline. Negotiators have reached agreement on one single text, with the remaining sticking points written in bracketed language indicating areas still subject to discussion and agreement. Now it is up to policymakers on both the Afghan and American sides to decide what they can live with. 

Among the most contentious issues: the definition of the “enemy.” The U.S. has focused on al Qaeda rather than on pursuing Taliban safe havens, and America’s continuing financial support for the Afghan National Security Forces. There is also, of course, the issue of U.S. legal jurisdiction over American military forces operating in Afghanistan, a point on which the Obama administration has said there is no negotiating.

Speaking to reporters during a surprise visit to Pakistan, Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was “personally confident” a deal would be reached. “The United States is drawing down, not withdrawing,” he said.

Other U.S. officials close to Afghanistan policy take issue with the idea that leaving no troops behind, come 2014, is under consideration as bilateral security talks near their final phase. “I challenge the view that anybody here in Washington thinks the ‘zero option is a real prospect,’” says a senior U.S. official familiar with Afghanistan policy. “I have heard absolutely nobody who thinks it is. And I have heard almost nobody argue that it should be. We made clear it is only an option if the Afghans choose it.”

Indeed, the “zero option” conversation sparked a round of reaction in Washington, with former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker arguing that “nothing could encourage the Taliban more.” Said Crocker, “’It's as if we're telling the Afghans, 'We're tired, we're going home, screw you.'"

Under the radar, both the Afghans and the Americans are said to have been quietly working to keep communication lines open. Karzai publicly quit the table following the opening and almost immediate closing of the Taliban office in Qatar. The Taliban’s Doha debut had the look of an embassy more than anything else, with the Taliban’s flag and a plaque announcing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. That angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai and many in the Afghan public, and Karzai retaliated by pulling the plug on talks with the Americans. The American experience leaving Iraq without a residual force is not one many in the Obama administration wish to repeat and the Afghan public did not respond kindly to Karzai’s suggestion that the country needed no international troop presence after 2014.

Long-stalled peace talks, too, remain on the table. Though U.S. officials recently said negotiations were “nowhere” following Doha debacle, recently there have been signs of a diplomatic warming in the region. Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently sent his foreign policy advisor to see Karzai. On Sunday, the Afghan Foreign Ministry announced that Karzai would “soon” travel to Islamabad to meet Sharif and to “seek Pakistan's cooperation in the peace negotiation process."  

This thaw comes weeks after Afghanistan’s top general argued in a BBC interview that his country’s war could end “in weeks” if Pakistan told the Taliban to put down their arms. “The Taliban are under (Pakistan's) control -- the leadership is in Pakistan," Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi said, provoking a swift denial from Pakistan’s foreign ministry.

In Islamabad, Kerry planned to talk with “the entire senior leadership of Pakistan,” said a senior official en route to Islamabad, on issues that include the shared terror threat, “cross-border militancy,” and “how we continue to partner in terms of promoting a secure and stable and united Afghanistan.”

Added the official, the U.S. is receiving “constructive cooperation” from the Pakistanis in “publicly calling on the Afghan Taliban to join peace negotiations and try to continue to facilitate the reconciliation process.”

Both the Pentagon and the State Department have consistently argued that the reconciliation process is key to ending America’s longest-ever war.  But U.S. officials have rebuffed the idea that reconciliation and the transition to Afghan leadership must happen at the same time. 

Finalizing the bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan may help to  clarify what the rest of that post-2014 enabling commitment will look like It may also quiet questions and criticisms from former commanders, Obama administration officials and members of Congress  who have argued for Obama to offer more detail about America’s post-2014 commitment sooner rather than later.

“The lack of clarity on this point has led to too much hedging in the region,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-NJ, regarding troop levels. “Afghans who may otherwise be interested in building a fledgling democracy want to know that they will not be abandoned by the United States as the Taliban claims they will be.”

Part of the reason to get the bilateral deal done by October, U.S. officials say, is to keep the agreement from becoming a political football in the April 2014 Afghan presidential elections. They want to offer at least some level of stability and continuity before the vote, given the upheaval provoked by the last Afghan election, which saw three months of voter fraud allegations before the country’s election commission finally declared Karzai the winner.

Already there is concern that fraud and a lack of preparation will spoil next year’s voting and delay the election. Donors see the election as critical to their decision over whether and how to continue to fund and finance the Afghan government. United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said at a July 2 news conference in Afghanistan ,“It is extremely important for the people of Afghanistan, but also for the United Nations and the many nations that have contributed to this transition, that the country does not fall back into the nightmares of war, the extreme poverty and violations of human rights that we saw earlier."

Norway, among Afghanistan’s largest donors, threatened earlier this month to withhold some of the $120 million it pledged between now and 2017 if the Afghan government failed to show more progress on election laws and women’s protections. The election laws have since moved forward, but many donors remain in “wait and see” mode until the election has passed peacefully.

In the meantime, the transition to Afghan leadership continues as the world begins to turn its attention to other hotspots, including the war in Syria.  Afghan forces now suffer the brunt of the fighting’s dead and injured given that they are conducting “almost all combat operations.” As the Pentagon noted, the NATO-led forces have seen casualties “lower than they have been since 2008.” Afghan civilians, however, have seen their casualties surge. According to U.N., the number of civilians killed or injured in Afghanistan climbed 23 percent in the first half of 2013. This grim statistic “reverses the decline recorded in 2012, and marks a return to the high numbers of civilian deaths and injuries documented in 2011.”

As a report Wednesday from Human Rights Watch noted, “as foreign troops leave, the foreign media presence in Afghanistan is also winding down. The years ahead could be brutal and bloody for Afghans. Will anyone still be paying attention?”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.