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New U.S.-Afghan security pact an effort to square a circle

The agreement tells Afghans we will not abandon them, the Taliban they can’t wait us out, and Pakistan its fear of a Taliban takeover is unfounded.

The U.S. will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, though most troops will have left the country by then.

It was revealed last week that the United States and Afghanistan have agreed to continue a strategic partnership beyond 2014, when the bulk of American troops will have left and Afghans will have assumed primary responsibility for their country’s security.

Though few details were offered, the announcement was clearly an effort to convince all concerned that the United States will continue to support Afghanistan, not simply fold up its tent and leave at the end of 2014. We were telling Afghans we will not abandon them, the Taliban they can’t wait us out, and Pakistan its fear of a Taliban takeover is unfounded.  

What should we make of this? What are we committing to, and why? Let’s try to read the tea leaves.

For one, we should note that the Bush administration was forced to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq when Iraq would no longer grant them immunity from Iraqi laws. Immunity for American military personnel remaining in Afghanistan beyond 2014 was likely one of the U.S. goals in this new partnership pact.

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The United States also wants to ensure that the Kabul government can protect its borders and its people after we leave. Without a viable Kabul government, we cannot claim to have achieved what presidents of both our parties have defined as a vital American interest: eliminating or minimizing the possibility of further attacks from Afghan territory.  

Among poorest nations

Kabul needs economic and financial help to take on responsibility for running and defending the country. Right now more than 90 percent of its national budget comes from other countries and international organizations. Afghanistan is among  the world’s poorest nations, with an estimated annual per capita income of less than $1,000 (compared to more than $40,000 in the United States.)

President Karzai is reportedly asking for $2.3 billion a year to maintain the country’s security force of about 300,000. That may sound like a lot, but it should be measured against the $10 billion per month we’re currently spending to wage this war. Because of the long support train, it costs us about $1 million a year for every American soldier we deploy to Afghanistan. We’ve already spent $1.3 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the projected costs – counting care of more than 2 million veterans, debt servicing, and replacement of equipment – go well beyond $3 trillion.  

As the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” showed us, we spent billions in the ’80s to help the Mujahidin drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, then refused to cough up even small change for schools or roads or hospitals. And on came the Taliban. Self interest would suggest we don’t want to repeat that mistake, even if we accept no moral responsibility for blowing up much of the country.  

The new agreement was negotiated by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and a senior Afghan diplomat over many months; no doubt the talks were fractious, given the series of ugly incidents including a rogue soldier murdering women and children; American troops burning copies of the Koran and urinating on corpses; and Afghan soldiers killing their American mentors.      

Both sides conflicted

For both the United States and Afghans, the partnership exercise is like trying to square a circle. Both sides are much conflicted. We want to get out, but not if we leave behind chaos that could threaten us yet again. Afghans want to get their country back – but they don’t want to be left with a bill they can’t pay or a situation they can’t manage.

We haven’t been told whether the framework agreement provides any specifics about our future assistance. It is said to include help with social and economic development, institution building, regional cooperation and security cooperation for 10 years after 2014. What Congress will actually provide is uncertain, and since it only appropriates money one year at a time, there can be no long-range funding guarantee.    

At its meeting in Chicago in July, NATO will be asking its members to add some pledges to the Afghanistan effort, though it may be difficult to get them to chip in much if American contributions remain fuzzy. Given all the uncertainties, there’s ample reason to question whether the intended messages to the Afghans, the Taliban, Pakistan, Iran and the American people will have much resonance.

So, should we be cheering? Yes, probably, since the lack of an accord would present even worse choices. Still, the new arrangement feels more like a shotgun marriage than a Hollywood ending. We have to do it, but we don’t have to be happy about it. The chances that the thing will last are not great, but for now nuptials seem like the best bet.  

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Dick Virden is a former Senior Foreign Service Officer who taught national security strategy at the National War College. He is now diplomat in residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.  


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