An assembly of Afghan tribal leaders has endorsed a deal to enable some US troops to operate in the country beyond 2014. Experts say the decision is a setback for Pakistan, which was hoping to regain influence in Kabul.
After four days of deliberations in the Afghan capital Kabul, the Loya Jirga, a grand assembly of about 2,500 tribal leaders and other influential Afghans, voted on Sunday, November 24, in favor of a major security deal with the United States. The crucial deal allows some US troops to operate in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops next year. The foreign troops will train the Afghan security forces as they struggle to cope with the persistent Taliban insurgency.
The Loya Jirga, which is a traditional consultative body, called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the deal immediately. But Karzai, in his final remarks to the Jirga, stood by his earlier position that he would not sign the deal until after the presidential elections in April. Washington insists the pact must be sealed by the end of the year. A draft text released by the Afghan government last week appeared to show that Karzai had yielded to a major US demand to exempt American troops from Afghan jurisdiction if they are accused of crimes.
What does it mean for Islamabad?
Pakistan has officially maintained that it is up to the Afghan people to decide whether they want the US presence in their country beyond 2014 or not. Islamabad says it does not interfere in what it considers an internal affair of Afghanistan.
But some experts say the US presence in the war-torn neighboring country clashes with the interests of the Pakistani military establishment, which hopes to regain the influence in Kabul it once enjoyed before the United States and its allies toppled the pro-Pakistan Taliban government in 2001.
The Pakistani establishment, analysts say, still considers the Taliban an important ally and representatives of the majority Pashtun Afghans who should be part of the Afghan government after the NATO pullout. Faridullah Khan, the DW correspondent in Peshawar, says a number of political parties have expressed disappointment over the Loya Jirga decision.
"The conservative Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf's government in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, wants all US and NATO troops to withdraw. They, however, want the international development agencies to stay," Khan said, adding that many in Islamabad are also against the US presence in Afghanistan.
The dismay was expressed clearly by Israrullah Advocate, a spokesman of the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami party, which is also part of the province's coalition government.
"We want all US and NATO troops to leave Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan have suffered a lot because of the US invasion of Afghanistan and their decade-long presence there. We also demand that the international community respects the sovereignty of Afghanistan and its people," Advocate told DW, adding that Afghanistan could take care of its security without US help.
A 'forced' decision
However, liberal Pakistanis have hailed the Loya Jirga's decision. They say that by advising President Karzai to sign the security pact with the US, the tribal elders have shown prudence. Without the deal, Afghanistan could plunge back into chaos and turmoil, they argue.
"I am a bit surprised by the Loya Jirga's decision," Usman Qazi, a Beirut-based Pakistani expert on Afghanistan, told DW. "I was not expecting such a mature decision by a tribal body."
For Advocate, the decision was not independent; it was forced upon the council by the US. "The (Loya Jirga's) decision was dictated by the US. First, there should be free and fair elections without any foreign pressure. Only the true representatives of Afghanistan can decide freely on such matters," Advocate said.
Qazi disagrees, criticizing this argument as lame. “The Loya Jirga has historically represented the whole of Afghanistan, and to say that the US could force hundreds of tribal elders to decide in its favor is ridiculous."
A 'wake-up call' for Pakistan
Owais Tohid, a Karachi-based senior journalist, believes that the whole process of giving US the right to stay in Afghanistan is complex. "The future of the US-Afghan relations depends on the implications of the Loya Jirga's decision," Tohid told DW. He does not expect the US-Afghan ties to work out smoothly even after the pact.
Tohid, however, believes the decision is a "wake-up call" for Pakistani rulers, who should not hope for a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan.
"Pakistani rulers should now put their house in order and do something to improve the security situation in their country. They should act decisively against banned militant organizations. Pakistan must also review its Afghan policy," Tohid said.
The journalist is of the view that instead of focusing on short-term benefits, Islamabad should forge a long-term alliance with the US and Afghanistan, based on commercial and economic interests. "In the long run, it will be a blessing in disguise for Pakistan. These short-term strategic gains reflect the myopic mindset of the Pakistani policymakers," Tohid said.
According to Qazi, a powerful component of the Pakistani establishment does not want the US presence in Afghanistan as it conflicts with its doctrine of 'strategic depth,' which sees Afghanistan as a backyard to counter the Indian influence in the region. "But there is no legal reason for Islamabad to oppose this Jirga's decision. Like any other sovereign country, Afghanistan, too, has the right to make its own decisions."
The Jamaat-i-Islami leader, however, believes that the long-term policies should give priority to the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"The new system to create stability and order in Afghanistan and Pakistan is negotiable," Advocate told DW. He says that Afghans and other regional forces can agree on a mechanism to ensure that stability. The US is not needed, he says.