As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefly descended on Kabul for a surprise stopover this weekend, it is telling that he did not meet with President Hamid Karzai. Previous visits by senior U.S. officials to strike a compromise with the Afghan leader have all failed as Mr. Karzai sets outrageous terms for keeping U.S. and other foreign forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 — such as banning counter terrorism raids by foreigners on Afghan homes. Putting more pressure on Mr. Karzai would only backfire at this point.
But with the deadline for reaching a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government weeks away and Mr. Karzai refusing to relax his recalcitrant stance, the United States must find another way of getting approval to ensure a continued foreign troop presence after most forces pull out in 2014. And it must do so quickly.
America's best option now is to simply bypass Mr. Karzai in favor of seeking endorsement from some other senior Afghan official (such as the defense minister) around an interim deal. If such a deal can be reached in time for NATO's ministerial meeting in February, it would allow plans for the post-2014 NATO mission to move on while a more permanent settlement with the new government is being worked out. Given that the Afghan loya jirga, or grand council, has already approved the bilateral security agreement and the fact that most Afghans want the foreign troops to stay so they don't have to battle the Taliban on their own, this is a far more workable strategy than waiting for Mr. Karzai to come to his senses.
Still, there is a great sense of urgency to this approach. Way too much time has already passed. Military planners in the Pentagon and NATO's headquarters need sufficient time to work out the details surrounding the post-2014 "training and advising" mission, expected to involve some 8,000 U.S. forces and 6,000 NATO troops. Clearly this is a huge undertaking that is not done over night.
The fact that several allied countries must also seek political approval from their own parliaments to keep their troops in Afghanistan adds further to the already tight time constraints. While several allied nations have pledged to keep some troops in the country as a part of NATO's new operation "Resolute Support," this commitment is contingent on the U.S. successfully striking a security agreement with Kabul. Without such an agreement, the so-called "zero-option" of complete withdrawal will soon be the only option on the table. This would be a catastrophic scenario, not only for Afghanistan but also for transatlantic security at large.
Three core reasons underpin the strategic imperative for the West to remain deeply involved in Afghanistan over the next decade. First, and most obviously, the security situation in the country remains in a perilous state and could easily tip over into chaos, even civil war, with negative spillover across the entire region as a direct consequence. In this scenario, Afghanistan could once again become a global breeding ground for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
Second, despite many shortcomings, the international community has actually made significant progress on a number of development goals in Afghanistan, particularly in the education and health areas. These gains are now in jeopardy if all foreign troops were to suddenly leave along with huge reductions in military and development assistance totaling $8 billion a year — money that Afghanistan remains heavily dependent on.
Finally, if seen as a failure, the Afghanistan operation will severely weaken the Atlantic alliance — this at a time when its relevance is already being called into question from numerous points. A legacy of failure in Afghanistan could also encourage Western nations to grow more inward-focused — something that would be very unfortunate in the midst of unprecedented challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere requiring a forceful response.
International assistance is therefore pivotal in Afghanistan's transition toward self-sufficiency. But every day that the post-2014 uncertainty drags on is a wasted day.
Erik Brattberg is a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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