The finalization of the terms of the U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Agreement is a genuine achievement for the Obama administration and especially our ace ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker. There has been so much tension and mistrust between Washington and Kabul–and specifically between Hamid Karzai and a succession of American envoys–that there were certainly times when it appeared that no deal could get done. But in the past few months, side agreements were hammered out governing the two most contentious issues: “night raids” and the detention of Afghan terrorism suspects by U.S. forces. That has allowed the broader agreement to be concluded in plenty of time for the NATO summit in Chicago in May.
It is not clear, however, how much impact this accord will have, because news reporting suggests its terms are very general. The U.S. is pledging to stay committed to Afghanistan at least through 2014 but is not committing to a specific figure on funding for the Afghan National Security Forces or on a specific force level for the U.S. advisory force that must remain even after combat forces are withdrawn. Only the release of actual troop and dollar figures–which admittedly are hard to define this far in advance–would suggest whether the U.S. commitment will be truly substantive or merely symbolic.
In Iraq today, for example, the U.S. has relatively little influence because all of our troops have been withdrawn and, predictably, the U.S. embassy has not been able to take up the slack. If this model were to be replicated in Afghanistan, post-2014, the result would be truly disastrous because Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is not yet able to exploit its mineral resources to fund itself and, also unlike Iraq, it faces an insurgency with entrenched safe havens in a neighboring country–namely Pakistan. A dramatic American drawdown thus could lead to an implosion.
Under those circumstances the U.S., if it expects to build on recent gains in Afghanistan, must maintain a robust commitment. As I suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, the U.S. should pledge to keep at least 68,000 troops through the end of 2014 and 30,000 troops thereafter in an advice and assist capacity–combined with at least $6 billion a year in funding for the Afghan National Security Forces. Current plans, however, call for cutting ANSF funding from today’s level of $6 billion a year to $4.1 billion a year which would necessitate reducing the ANSF’s ranks from 350,000 to 230,000 after 2014. It is hard to imagine the security environment in Afghanistan turning so benign that such a reduction in force could be undertaken without a major loss of security and stability. Unless and until the Obama administration (or a successor) pledges to maintain an adequate level of funding for the ANSF–and to maintain an adequate U.S. advisory force in Afghanistan–the commitments embodied in the Security Partnership Agreement will not be taken terribly seriously by friends or foes.