Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Agreement

Obama Spiking the Football Before Forfeiting the Game

President Obama made a tough call to order the hit on Osama bin Laden. Had the operation failed, pundits and press would have fallen over themselves to liken him to Jimmy Carter and the ham-handed hostage rescue operation in Iran. And, contrary to Mitt Romney’s suggestion that anyone would have made the same call, even Carter, that’s clearly not true: When the U.S. intelligence community and military had bin Laden in its sights, Bill Clinton did not have the political courage to make the call.

Celebrating the much-ballyhooed strategic partnership deal finalized last month between the United States and Afghanistan is premature, however. With the smoke clears, details of the agreement are short, and Obama’s timeline continues to erode confidence in the wisdom of the alliance where it matters, among Afghans.

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President Obama made a tough call to order the hit on Osama bin Laden. Had the operation failed, pundits and press would have fallen over themselves to liken him to Jimmy Carter and the ham-handed hostage rescue operation in Iran. And, contrary to Mitt Romney’s suggestion that anyone would have made the same call, even Carter, that’s clearly not true: When the U.S. intelligence community and military had bin Laden in its sights, Bill Clinton did not have the political courage to make the call.

Celebrating the much-ballyhooed strategic partnership deal finalized last month between the United States and Afghanistan is premature, however. With the smoke clears, details of the agreement are short, and Obama’s timeline continues to erode confidence in the wisdom of the alliance where it matters, among Afghans.

At present, the Afghans get perhaps $15 billion per year in foreign aid. The Afghan government estimates it needs $10 billion per year from donors after 2014. It will take $6 billion per year to finance a 352,000-man Afghan army and police force; extracting savings by shrinking the force is self-defeating. The World Bank has predicted an unmanageable fiscal crisis if Afghanistan has to finance its own security forces.

Beyond the lack of certainty regarding Afghanistan’s finances and American willingness to support Afghanistan and its mercurial president, the Obama team’s outreach to the Taliban promises to accelerate defeat. Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.),  Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, has published an article suggesting the following, according to an Open Source Center translation:

Reports said a few days ago that the United States will release former Taliban Interior Minister Mullah Khairkhwah and another key Taliban prisoner from Guantanamo prison. According to reports, these prisoners will be released as a confidence-building measure so that talks between the United States and Taliban can resume. Mullah Khairkhwah will be transferred to Qatar, the reports said. A number of MPs, who wished to remain anonymous, had even said that he might be sent to Kabul.

Colin Powell once famously proposed reaching out to “moderate Taliban.” Khairkhwah is no moderate.  As a key Taliban security official prior to 9/11, he protected bin Laden and has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands.

Hasht-e Sobh continues:

A number of Pakistani media have also reported that the United States has asked the Taliban to issue a statement and declare their separation from Al-Qa’ida. The Taliban, however, have rejected to do so.

Celebrating the new U.S.-Afghan Agreement is premature; it is written in smoke rather than ink. Punting discussion of details and funding to the future will be no more successful than past administrations which celebrated Arab-Israeli breakthroughs while final status issues remained untouched and unresolved. Had Obama stopped there, perhaps no harm would have been done. However, the combination of a timeline and outreach to the Taliban is a noxious mix that destines any American strategy to defeat.  Until and unless the commander-in-chief is willing to sign on to a strategy to defeat the Taliban completely rather than co-opt and flee, he is simply spiking the football at halftime, before forfeiting the game.

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The Afghan Accord and Our Pledge

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.

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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.

 

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