The controversy surrounding the bilateral Security Defense Cooperation Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan is more complex than a stubborn Afghan president. President Karzai is playing the weighing game. On one side of the scale rests the centerpiece of the U.S. War on Terror, something the United States is reluctant to compromise. On the other, is the possibility for an Afghan peace process that includes the Taliban. Poor President Karzai, at the end of an exhausting term, is faced with the most important decision of his Presidency, where a misstep in either direction could mean indefinite war or Taliban takeover.
Afghanistan has significant sovereign incentives to sign the security pact. Foremost among the benefits is that money would keep flowing to development projects and security entities. Moreover, if the Karzai government and its successor are committed to fighting Taliban insurgency, neither current nor prospective regime can hope to succeed without support from the United States. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are undersupplied, undertrained, and undermanned—a bad combination for taking on insurgency alone.
But wait—there are more carrots for the Afghans. Under Article 8 of the agreement, the U.S. would consent to sign over the title and deed of any permanent U.S. facility—or in docuspeak ‘non-relocatable structure’—to the Afghan government upon completion of its mission in Afghanistan. This would be an infrastructural and strategic boon for the Afghan military.
Under intense pressure from the United States, Karzai risks abandonment in delaying signature of the agreement. The Obama administration has not minced words. National Security Advisor Susan Rice issued a statement after a meeting with Karzai in late November, indicating that if an agreement were not signed ‘promptly’ the U.S. would begin planning for the so-called zero option. Afghanistan’s occupational compatriot Iraq has felt the painful repercussions of the zero option, currently sporting its highest levels of casualties and insurgent activity since 2008. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari recently paid a visit to President Karzai, ostensibly to offer advice on how to negotiate with the United States. A repeat of the Iraqi zero-option disaster is a very real possibility in Afghanistan. In the Afghan case it is certainly not unreasonable to argue that the Taliban would reclaim vast swathes of territory, including Kabul, upon the departure of foreign forces. The danger here ought not be understated.
Despite the potent risks of full withdrawal, the unyielding media refrain ‘why is Karzai so stubborn,’ misses important reasons for the Afghan President’s hesitance to sign the agreement in haste. There are two big reasons and one little reason. Starting with the little one. The agreement would allow any entity contracted by the U.S. Armed Services or Department of Defense to operate in Afghanistan tax-free and with limited licensing (Art. 16 Sec. 4 and Art. 11 Sec. 2). Furthermore, Afghan utilities would be lawfully obliged to offer these contractors—along with foreign military personnel—the same low rates that the domestic ANDSF receives (Art. 12 Sec. 1). As has been shown time and again—in great disrespect to the neoliberal paradigm—giving tax breaks to foreign corporations is bad economic development; an unattractive route for an already debilitated Afghan economy.
Another factor weighing heavily on Karzai’s mind is popular opinion. Yes Afghanistan has elections, and yes public opinion matters. Irresponsible and in many cases criminal acts have been carried out by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Oversight of these issues by DoD, the State Department, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has been hit or miss at best. Some offenders have faced justice back in the U.S. while others have not, just ask Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill. This has served to deeply alienate large swaths of the Afghan populace, a body Karzai has rightly chosen to heed.
As a result, President Karzai is insisting on the inclusion of a clause categorically forbidding entry of U.S. military forces into Afghan private residencies. Article 7 (sec. 3) of the draft agreement says that the U.S. “shall not target Afghan civilians, including in their homes,” a standard that regrettably must be reiterated. Karzai demands more, and rightly so. There can be little hope for success against insurgency if the populace is equally scared of foreign forces and the Taliban. The current strategy of executing or disappearing innocent Afghan civilians indicates how seriously the military and political establishment in the United States takes the winning ‘Hearts and Minds’ approach. Gung-ho JSOC killers tend to see themselves as ‘terrorist hunters’ rather than peace corp volunteers.
Finally—the most important of Karzai’s internal debates, that has received the scantest media coverage, is the possibility of peace. If he allows foreign forces to stay, the prospect of an accord with the Taliban evaporates. Attaching his signature to the bilateral agreement sets in stone indefinite conflict. As long as ‘infidels’—and by this the Taliban mean occupying forces of current or historical colonial regimes—remain in Afghanistan, moderate members of the Taliban will be marginalized and the hardliners will stay in business. More Afghan soldiers will die, more U.S. soldiers will die, more insurgents will die, and more Afghan civilians will bloat an ever-increasing body of tragedy.
This is the choice Karzai confronts: weighing the possibility of Taliban takeover against a hope for reconciliation. It isn’t simple, it isn’t sure, and it certainly isn’t easy. The fate of a nation, rarely party to peace, rests in his hands. Maybe we all should give the guy a break.
Sam Kierstead is a student in the School of International Studies at American University.