After 12 years of US invasion, Afghanistan remains dependent on foreign aid and occupation.
The thought of an Afghanistan without the military presence of the US creates anxiety for the many liberal Afghans and politicians who have returned home from the West to form the front bench of Hamid Karzai’s government.
But the US has long said it will withdraw many of its forces from Afghanistan by 2014, while hoping to maintain a number of military bases there.
The US and Afghan governments have said American troops are needed to fight terrorism and to train the Afghan National Army.
While it is understandable that some segments of the Afghan population would want US bases in Afghanistan, the question remains why the Americans would want bases there – especially when the cost of running them falls on the US.
The bases in question include the Bagram, Kandahar and Shindand air bases, locations that were strategically significant in the Cold War era.
Within easy reach of Bagram and Shindand, respectively, are Central Asian capitals and northeastern Iran, so US bombers would not have to refuel in mid-air.
The southern Kandahar base, meanwhile, forms an excellent supply base to the others because of its proximity to the Arabian Sea.
Need for military bases
It is clear the US does not need military bases in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban or train the Afghan National Army.
With the use of US drones, the war against the Taliban could stretch on for decades at a fraction of the cost of maintaining large military bases.
Training Afghanistan’s national army does not necessarily require US bases either.
In reality, supporters of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) are not concerned about the Taliban, whom they view as proxy fighters for the interests of regional powers.
Supporters view the BSA as a regional stabiliser. In their view, Afghanistan needs a protectorate in the mini-Great Game that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. [The Great Game was the 19th-century strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires.]
Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan’s former foreign minister and current national security adviser, strongly believes in continued US military presence in his country.
In an address to parliament this past weekend, he said: “I believe without this document [the BSA], Afghanistan would again be isolated and alone.”
But the BSA is a double-edged sword that could also heighten tensions in the region.
Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan may work against the US to covertly aid the Taliban, thus prolonging the war.
The content of the BSA is also of significance to both the people of Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, including Russia.
Since the document requires the US to maintain military bases in Afghanistan, there are fundamental questions about how these bases would be used.
Who would have sovereignty over the bases? What type of weapons would be stored there? How would this affect the balance of power in the region, and could it trigger an arms race?
Would the bases prompt Russia or Iran to point long-range missiles towards Afghanistan? Does the government have long-term plans to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on the US military presence?
Then there is the issue of sovereignty, an extremely important and sensitive subject for the people of Afghanistan.
Would the BSA contain the word “sovereignty” – and in what context?
Regardless of how the world views Afghanistan’s Mujahedin, to the people of Afghanistan they are heroes who defeated the Soviets and fought for their country’s sovereignty. They would not agree to relinquish an inch of sovereignty to a foreign government.
Karzai’s government is dominated by former Mujahedin, and while they are not all in key positions, they exert considerable influence on key issues through their ground support.
It is against this complex geopolitical backdrop that the Afghan and the US governments are engaged in negotiating the BSA.
“The draft is complete … There are a few special points still being discussed. … There are still some differences,” Karzai said on Saturday.
Over to loya jirga
Despite these differences, Karzai has pushed the draft to a consultative loya jirga, established in October by a presidential decree.
A loya jirga is a grand assembly of elders and influential figures authorised by the government to discuss local, national and international issues when asked. There are close to 3,000 members.
Historically, the loya jirga has been a political tool used by successive governments to legitimise a particular policy and wrap it in the cloak of Islam. Often in the opening of the first session of the loya jirga, verses of the Quran are read, urging consultation among Muslims in settling disputes.
Karzai’s decision to convene such a meeting raises many questions, including: Why use a consultative loya jirga when there is an elected parliament?
Sediq Mudaber, head of the loya jirga organising commission’s secretariat, says that, by law, “the BSA can only be approved by the two houses of the parliament”.
The loya jirga is not a ploy to undermine the houses of parliament, he says.
So why would Karzai take this step? Like everything else in Afghanistan, the answer is very complex.
For starters, Karzai’s presidency is nearing its end. According to the constitution, he cannot run for a third term.
Regardless of whether or not the BSA is approved, he has nothing to lose. Whichever way the coin falls, he will take that side.
Question of legitimacy
Karzai knows that bulk of Taliban forces comprise of Pashtuns, making tribal politics all too important.The Taliban views parliament as a foreign creation with no legitimacy.
To approve the BSA through parliament would only strengthen the Taliban’s position that the entire government is nothing but a tool to legitimize the occupation.
The core demand of the Taliban for any peace negotiation has been the total and unconditional withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
To approve the BSA through a traditional tribal jirga and the two houses of the parliament would effectively pitch the Taliban against members of their own tribes and the whole nation, compelling them to drop their condition for US withdrawal.
On the other hand, whichever way the loya jirga votes, Karzai will follow suit – a manoeuvre that could empower Karzai for his possible next move, which may be to consult the jirga on the upcoming elections.
Many doubt the elections will go smoothly or help promote Afghanistan’s stability.
It is feared that Karzai may use the jirga to extend his rule, or at least postpone the elections, allowing him to remain president by default and giving him the tribal legitimacy to negotiate a government of national unity.
This would be a dangerous move, but if the loya jirga withdraws its support for holding elections, it would be almost impossible to hold a vote.
Indeed, convening the consultative loya jirga was a shrewd move by the wily Afghan leader.
Knowing the question of national sovereignty weighs on the mind of all Afghans, Karzai has absolved himself of responsibility by creating an illusion of handing over the BSA decision to the people – all the while knowing the jirga’s decision is not binding.
If the BSA is approved, Karzai becomes the hero who anchored America in Afghanistan and used the US presence to secure his own country at a regional level.
If the deal falls apart, it will be up to his successor to pick the pieces, while Karzai would go down in history as the Afghan restaurateur who used America to his advantage but gave them nothing in return.