February 11, 2014 | Issue Brief on International Conflicts
The Obama Administration has lost confidence in the government in Afghanistan, and it is easy to understand why. After the loss of nearly 2,300 U.S. troops in 12 years of military operations and the investment of over $90 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a security pact allowing for a residual U.S. force presence post-2014 and continual rants and conspiracy theories about U.S. policy are inexplicable and unforgiveable.
But allowing frustration with Karzai to lead to a total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this year would be a monumental mistake. The recent increase in al-Qaeda violence in Iraq should serve as a warning that failure to maintain a residual force presence in Afghanistan post-2014 would increase instability throughout South and Central Asia and embolden a vast network of Islamist terrorists with global ambitions. Moreover, renewed instability in Afghanistan would also likely spill over into Pakistan, where terrorist attacks are on the rise and the U.S. intelligence community’s concerns over the safety and security of its nuclear weapons arsenal are growing.
There is a sense of déjà vu in that U.S. security talks are close to breaking down with Afghanistan much the same way they did with Iraq two years ago. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari advised Karzai in December to sign the bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the U.S., warning him not to be under any illusions that the Americans are desperate to stay in Afghanistan.
The Iraqi government is currently struggling to control escalating violence that resulted in nearly 7,800 civilian deaths last year and the fall of the city of Fallujah in Anbar province to al-Qaeda militants last month. In November 2013 alone, Iraq experienced 50 suicide attacks.
When Karzai first announced last fall that he would not sign the BSA until after the April 2014 elections, observers thought he was trying to drive a hard bargain with the U.S. If that was the case, he lost the bargain when the U.S. Congress slashed development funding to Afghanistan by 50 percent in the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations legislation that passed last month.
It is now clear that Karzai is sabotaging his own country’s future. A formal assembly of Afghanistan’s tribal elders urged him to sign the BSA late last year, and nearly all of the electoral candidates for the April elections have expressed their support for maintaining a residual U.S. force presence. The only entity that supports Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA is the Taliban, which has long called for the ouster of all international forces from the country.
Some media reports allege that Karzai is secretly negotiating with the Taliban (although the Taliban has strongly refuted the claims). If Karzai is holding unilateral talks with the Taliban, he is almost certainly being led down the garden path of scuttling the BSA to benefit the Taliban’s military plans.
While Karzai’s position on the BSA is irresponsible and is putting his country’s future at risk, the Obama Administration has also sent mixed messages on its commitment to Afghanistan. The Administration should have signaled long ago its intention to leave a robust residual force. Instead, the White House has refused to provide a firm indication of how many troops it would be prepared to leave after 2014. By proposing Washington either leave 10,000 residual troops or none at all, the U.S. military leadership may be signaling its frustration with White House equivocation over the troop numbers issue.
With only two months to go before the Afghan elections, the U.S. should simply ignore Karzai and wait for the election to produce a new government, which would very likely sign the BSA promptly. Afghanistan should not again become a hotbed for terrorists bent on attacking the U.S. To ensure that Afghanistan does not implode as the U.S. draws down its forces, the U.S. must:
The U.S. has tremendous stakes in the future of Afghanistan and therefore should take a long-term focus and develop a well-crafted strategy that manages the withdrawal of combat troops and transitions to a new security role of bolstering Afghan forces. If the Taliban regain influence and power in the country, it will embolden Islamist extremists throughout the region and increase the risk of international terrorist attacks.
Moreover, renewed instability in Afghanistan would also likely spill over into Pakistan, where terrorist attacks are already on the rise and the U.S. intelligence community’s concerns over the safety and security of its nuclear weapons arsenal are growing.
—Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Jackie Calmes and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Military Eyes Afghan Force of 10,000, or a Pullout,” The New York Times, January 21, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/world/asia/military-eyes-afghan-force-of-10000-or-a-pullout.html (accessed February 6, 2014).