The headlines earlier this week on Afghanistan mark a rare front page story for a war that has largely gone forgotten in the United States. Negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the run up to Thursday's Loya Jirga (or Grand Council) signify the impending end next year of America's longest war.
Despite the fact that nearly 50,000 American troops remain engaged in combat and supporting operations daily in Afghanistan, most Americans are completely oblivious of the ongoing conflict. For all the undisputed benefits of shifting to an all-volunteer military in 1973, one characteristic that has been lost with the end of conscription is any degree of sustained popular involvement in America's wars. The utter lack of public interest in an Afghan war entering its thirteenth year speaks volumes for this change in attitude.
The negotiations this week will ultimately decide whether U.S. forces (and by default, NATO troops) will stay in Afghanistan after December 2014 – or pack up and completely depart. Those who contend such a “zero option” outcome is impossible need only look to the rapid and complete U.S. exit from Iraq at the end of 2011. This complete departure of U.S. forces from Iraq was driven by a failure to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to assure residual U.S. troops would be immune from Iraqi law. The same issue – sovereign immunity – dominates much of the current discussions in Kabul, and will be one of the central discussion points among the nearly 3,000 Afghan representatives expected to attend the Loya Jirga. If left unresolved, the outcome in Kabul could be the same as it was in Baghdad: no residual U.S. troop presence, after nearly 14 years at war.
But other key topics will occupy the negotiators as well, including how many bases U.S. forces can have access to for sustained counter-terror (CT) or advisory missions; the ability of U.S. CT forces to operate with freedom of action across the country, to include entering Afghan homes; the ability of remaining coalition forces to detain suspects found on raids; the limits of U.S. offensive operations; U.S. overflight and basing rights; and even taxes on U.S. firms and government activities. In all, the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), as it is termed, will be a comprehensive document that will chart the shape of the U.S.-Afghan (and likely NATO) relationship to 2024, and beyond.
While the outcome of these talks is far from determined, one fact is indisputable: the majority of the Afghan leadership and even most of the Afghan people recognize that absent U.S. troops, virtually no aid or security dollars will flow to Afghanistan from the United States after December 2014. And that means only one thing: Game Over for the Afghan government in Kabul.
After 12 years of war, the single most important commitment that the United States and its allies can make to the future security and stability of Afghanistan is sustained financial support for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Absent those (mostly American) payments – estimated to be about $4.1 billion annually for fuel, weaponry, ammo and pay – the ANSF would rapidly collapse, followed in short order by the Afghan government. For this reason, the Taliban is adamantly opposed to any BSA between Afghanistan and the U.S. – an outlook that will be undoubtedly heard in the background of this week's Loya Jirga.
But the reality on the ground is indisputable: Afghanistan needs the United States to keep troops – even a modest number – in Afghanistan for a decade or more to come. The military utility of residual U.S. forces is far less important than their indirect contribution to assuring an uninterrupted flow of the international financial resources that maintain the stability of the Afghan state. Keeping funds flowing to the ANSF is the best investment the West can make in Afghan stability and in maintaining the hard-fought gains of the last decade in Afghanistan. And doing so also gives the United States an important, if modest, military presence and broader influence in what is arguably the most dangerous corner of the world. Everyone would appear to take away some wins from this agreement – let's hope the Tribal Elders in the Loya Jirga see it the same way.