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US security support

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 30, 2014

Afghanistan's new government has signed a long-delayed security deal with the US allowing Washington to leave some troops beyond 2014. Analyst Scott Smith speaks to DW about the implications of the deal for both nations.

Image: Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images

In a move intended to mend frayed ties with the Unites States, a representative of the newly-inaugurated Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and US Ambassador James Cunningham, signed the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) on Tuesday, September 30 at the presidential palace in Kabul. The deal allows the US to leave a small contingent of troops in the country beyond this year, when a NATO-led combat mission ends.

The agreement became a sticking point in US-Afghan relations after President Hamid Karzai refused to sign it last year despite a "loya jirga" grand assembly endorsing the deal. Also inked was a similar agreement between Afghanistan and NATO. The new mission, named Resolute Support, will focus on training and support for the Afghan army and police as they take on an increasingly resilient insurgency. Troops from Germany, Italy and other NATO members will join a force of some 9,800 US soldiers, bringing numbers up to about 12,500.

Scott Smith, director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia program at the United States Institute of Peace, says in a DW interview that signing the BSA is essentially the minimum condition for a future strategic partnership, which includes significant financial support. By doing so, the new government also reinforced its investment in this partnership.

Scott Smith
Smith: 'The presence of US troops in Afghanistan will ensure that Afghanistan remains a top foreign policy issue for Washington'Image: USIP

DW: What does the signing of the BSA represent for Afghanistan?

Scott Smith: At the very least, the signing of the BSA represents a restoration of confidence in the relations between the two countries. The US-Afghanistan relationship had deteriorated significantly during President Karzai's second term and his refusal to sign the BSA was only part of that deterioration.

People knew that if the agreement was not signed, the US military commitment to Afghanistan would end, and this added to the general sense of uncertainty during a critical and difficult electoral year when, for the first time, someone other than Karzai would be president. Signing the BSA is essentially the minimum condition for a future strategic partnership, which includes significant financial support. By doing so, the new government also signaled that it is invested in this partnership.

What exactly does the BSA provide for?

The BSA provides the legal basis for US troops to remain in Afghanistan. It also allowed the signing of a Status of Forces Agreement with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. These international forces that remain will not have a combat function as their mandate is to "train, advise, and assist" the Afghan security forces.

Since June of last year, Afghan forces have been fully in the lead of combat operations. They have been supported by international forces in terms of receiving logistic support, medevac capabilities, and intelligence. But this support has dwindled. The US, for example, no longer provides medevac assistance.

More specifically, the BSA sets out rules of engagement for US troops and provides immunity for US troops from Afghan laws. The rules are more restrictive than in the previous agreement, which was negotiated more than a decade ago. Because of these more restrictive rules, the BSA is considered to be more respectful of Afghan sovereignty. Furthermore, President Obama announced in May that US troops would only remain until 2016. When the BSA was initially negotiated, the assumption was that US troops would remain in Afghanistan for another decade.

The BSA became a symbol of frayed US-Afghan ties. How did Karzai's stance impact bilateral ties?

President Karzai surprised many people by refusing to sign the BSA, even though he had received a near-unanimous endorsement to sign it from the national assembly (loya Jirga) he convened specifically to seek guidance on whether it should be signed. This was indeed a sign of how difficult and, to some extent, bitter, relations had become between President Karzai and the US administration.

I choose these words deliberately - most Afghans seemed to have wanted him to sign it, so it was not a symbol of frayed US-Afghan ties, but it was definitely a symbol of frayed US-Karzai ties. Karzai's refusal to sign it would have had a catastrophic effect on the bilateral relationship had the electoral dispute endured much longer.

My personal view for his not wanting to sign it is that he had lost confidence in the military relationship with the US. As he said in his final speech, he believed the US had become a cause of conflict in Afghanistan, rather than a provider of stability, and therefore the responsibility for their presence should be assumed by his successor.

Some Afghans still oppose the BSA because they think it would undermine the country's sovereignty. What is your view on this?

This may be the point of view of some, but I would not be surprised if many Afghans have come to adopt a more pragmatic view of sovereignty. In other words, they understand that it is difficult to exercise real sovereignty when your political class is divided, the state is under constant pressure from an insurgency, and neighbors are able to easily meddle in domestic political matters.

Einigung über Einheitsregierung in Afghanistan unterzeichnet 21.9.2014
The BSA is clearly perceived to be important for the new Afghan government, says SmithImage: AFP/Getty Images

Those who believe that a continued US presence will eventually help to strengthen state institutions and ensure the continued support for the Afghan national security forces may view this continued presence, in the medium term at least, as essential to attaining meaningful sovereignty, rather than declarations of sovereignty that are not much more than rhetoric.

What does the BSA entail in terms of financial aid?

The NATO summit that was held in Wales in early September was perhaps more immediately relevant to financial aid. The participants pledged to continue to financially support Afghan security forces over the next ten years, but in decreasing amounts and under the assumption that Afghan authorities would make demonstrably effective efforts to ensure accountability. This agreement was reached before the BSA was signed.

On the other hand, at a symbolic level, the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, as long as it lasts, will ensure that Afghanistan remains a top foreign policy issue for Washington. Afghans I have spoken to about this seem acutely aware that without US troops, Afghanistan might once again be quickly abandoned. For many, therefore, the important question was not necessarily how many troops would remain if the BSA were signed, but how long they would remain. From this perspective, the Obama announcement of a complete withdrawal by 2016 came as a disappointment.

Symbolbild Verhältnis USA Afghanistan
After the signing of the BSA a small contingent of foreign troops will remain in the country beyond 2014Image: picture alliance / AP Photo

How important is the BSA for the stability of the new Afghan government?

The BSA is clearly perceived to be important for the new Afghan government, otherwise its signature would not have been one of the first acts of the new government. At the level of perception it provides some confidence that the international community will remain committed to Afghanistan's progress, and at the practical level it ensures that Afghan security forces will continue to be supported. In my view, a more flexible approach to the withdrawal timelines would have a positive effect on political stability.

On the other hand, the fact that the administration of US President Barack Obama has not been ambiguous about its desire to remove all troops by 2016 sends a clear signal to Afghan political leaders that they cannot waste their energies on internal struggles; they must begin to create a government that is much more effective than it has been. It also sends a clear signal to Afghan military leaders that they have two years to prepare themselves to confront the insurgency alone, and that this time must be used wisely.

Scott Smith is the director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia program at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace.