The strained relationship between the US and Afghan governments has descended into sheer brinksmanship over the bilateral security agreement. And it would be in no one's interest if the deal collapsed.
It's a risky game, and the stakes could hardly be higher. Afghanistan stands to lose billions of dollars in military and economic aid, while the US risks leaving the country in chaos after spending 12 years, and losing 2,300 US lives, to achieve a fragile stability.
But in the past few months, the relationship between the US and Afghanistan, which has steadily deteriorated under President Barack Obama, has now descended into a game of brinksmanship over the proposed "bilateral security agreement" (BSA), meant to establish the terms of their partnership for the next 10 years.
The talks came to a head on Monday (25.11.2013), during US National Security Advisor Susan Rice's visit to Kabul, where Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign the BSA, defying not only the US, but also the Loya Jirga - Karzai's hand-picked assembly of chieftains - who endorsed the deal over the weekend and urged their president to seal it by the end of the year.
In response, Rice said the US would have no choice but to invoke the "zero option" - the complete withdrawal of US troops after 2014 - unless Karzai signed by December 31 this year. Karzai's mulish attitude has baffled and infuriated the US government - as well as many Afghans.
"He's playing chicken and hoping the Americans will swerve before he does," said Stephen Biddle, defense policy analyst at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. "And the whole problem with chicken is that if you guess wrong then both sides die. You're threatening to kill everyone in order to get a little more of what you want. A total American withdrawal is neither in Afghan interests, or America's interests, or NATO's interests, but it's a distinct possibility."
The Iraqi withdrawal in 2011 set a gloomy precedent, with the country since descending into sectarian violence. Michael Keating, Afghanistan specialist at the UK's Chatham House think tank, agrees that Karzai's brinksmanship is only harming Afghan interests. "For most Afghans the biggest problem at the moment is uncertainty, and what this is prolonging that uncertainty," he told DW. "If for whatever reason the BSA doesn't happen, then the political support in Washington for subsidizing the Afghan state is likely to be very badly dented, if not collapse. Afghanistan's national budget is 90 percent dependent on overseas development assistance, so this is very serious stuff."
Playing for time
At the same time, the deadline set by the US has ratcheted up the tension - some argue unnecessarily. Biddle thinks there is a good logistical reason why the US wants a decision to made sooner rather than later. "It takes time to plan for withdrawals," he told DW. "You can't expect 60,000 American troops to all of a sudden pick up and go tomorrow morning."
Karzai appears to want the the deal to be delayed until after next year's election, which will determine his successor. Though this is planned for April, there is no guarantee, Keating argues, that a new Afghan government will be in place by then. "The elections could be contested, and then there would be a delay of 10 months rather than five," he said.
Secondly, allowing a delay means that the BSA becomes one of the campaign issues in the election. "The elections are a wild card anyway," said Biddle. "But delaying the BSA would set up a situation where you're empowering marginal political actors in Afghanistan - who want the US withdrawal - to bargain for influence with other more orthodox Afghan politicians. If the US presence is still up for grabs in April, you could imagine that one or another marginal could use this issue to manipulate politicians who favor the US presence."
31 new recommendations
The Loya Jirga's advice to Karzai to sign the deal before the end of the year was, meanwhile, only one of 31 new recommendations that it hoped might be attached to the BSA. These include a number of Afghan concerns, such as allowing Afghan observers to attend American military trials, banning Christian religious observances on US military bases, banning home raids by US forces, and releasing all the remaining prisoners at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
"Those concerns are legitimate," said Keating. "But I don't think those are the fundamental issues," he added. "The fundamental issue is whether Karzai will sign the BSA. I'm not belittling these problems, they're serious, but I don't think these are the problems holding up the signature."
There is also speculation that Karzai's plan to delay the agreement is not just about winning as many of these concessions as possible. "Part of it is probably that this keeps Karzai relevant," said Biddle. "He knows that he's a potential lame duck, and one way to keep himself influential is to keep this agreement negotiation open. Also, he would like someone else to be labeled as the person who ensured long-term foreign presence in Afghanistan. And lastly I wouldn't be surprised if part of what he's doing now is personal frustration with the US administration."
"By doing this, he keeps many cards in his hands," said Keating. "Including the choice of the next president. The assumption is whoever gets his blessing is likely to have a very good chance of winning."
In an interview broadcast Wednesday by Radio Free Europe, Karzai appeared to soften his stance slightly, by saying he would sign the deal if the US meets demands to not raid Afghan homes and help restart peace talks, though he appears to have taken a small step back on his demand that the US guarantee free and fair presidential elections in April. Despite all this, he still refuses to sign the deal before the deadline.
"It would be a very unwise poker player that put a big bet on any particular outcome at this point," said Biddle.