The prolonged and unpredictable saga of President Karzai’s dealing with the Afghan-U.S. Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) has left many confused and concerned. Confused because they cannot understand President Karzai’s rationale in refusing to sign the agreement and concerned because they understand the benefit of a long-term agreement with the U.S. The longer President Karzai stalls, the more pronounced both the confusion and concern will become. Afghanistan is at a strategic inflection point. If President Karzai fails to act, others might and the U.S. may simply just lose interest.
The lion’s-share of Afghans appear to want the BSA signed as evidenced by the Consultative Loya Jirga and many simply do not understand President Karzai’s rationale. They are also disappointed that he is not making any real effort to explain himself. Top Afghan leaders are pressing him and the Obama administration has backed off its 31 December 2013 deadline believing he will ultimately see reason and sign. Senior American military officials are worried about the loss of cumulative gains against the Taliban resulting from a U.S. withdrawal and there is evidence of reducing U.S. support for the idea.
President Karzai is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the U.S. and in so doing increasing the threat of destabilizing Afghanistan. Afghans are trying to determine what all of this means not just for the security transition, but also for the concurrent economic and governance transitions. Most Afghans, as evidenced by the Loya Jirga, essentially agree to the draft BSA without significant amendment and want the agreement signed, sooner rather than later.
Afghans understand that the BSA is as important to the economic stability of the country as it is to security. Some would argue more so. They are afraid President Karzai does not understand this important fact. Real estate prices are fluctuating wildly in Kabul as the prospects for signing the BSA wax and wane. Property prices doubled when people thought the BSA was about to be signed in December, but plummeted back to the original levels, once the deal started to falter.
Afghans understand that the BSA is key to continued economic assistance as well as to the security guarantees explicitly outlined within it. Some simply consider the BSA a Basic Survival Agreement. Regardless of the debate about the final number of U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan after 2014, an explicit security agreement helps settle markets, attract foreign investment, reassures regional stability, and also sends a signal to the Taliban - and other spoilers, both local and international - that there is a stable future for Afghanistan.
Many of the areas in the south and east of Afghanistan are seeing increasing levels of violence, but some Afghans feel the Taliban are not as big of a security deal as Washington might think or President Karzai might use in his negotiations. While the Taliban’s military activity is a persistent irritant to be sure, it is not comparable with the violence seen in Iraq, and there is great pride that the Afghan National Army has more than held their own this season. There seems to be increasing faith and confidence in Afghan Army capabilities, tempered with a realization that significant international assistance is still needed and will be well into the future.
The international community has a significant role to play by providing depth through support of airlift, some logistics, and intelligence. While acknowledging that the Army and Police require sustained international assistance and funding, there is no desire among the Afghans for continued U.S.-led direct combat action.
President Karzai appears to be playing a risky game of trying to see everyone’s cards before closing the bidding, all the while assuming he holds a much stronger hand than he perhaps actually does. He may argue in retrospect that his delay in signing the BSA was to finesse a quick accommodation from the Taliban and/or to unify the country and thus to secure his presidential legacy. But many Afghans do not see it that way and worry about his trip to Iran and India and wish he would explain his actions. They worry that his bluff may not pay off. Many believe his approach has very little real chance of succeeding, particularly within the time he has left in his final term of office. President Karzai has done almost nothing to explain his rationale or strategy to the people and many grow weary and some are losing confidence. Therefore, most remain confused as much as they are concerned.
The relationship with the U.S. is unclear, but it certainly is deteriorating and the Kabul political elite are growing fearful and suspicious of an Afghan governance crisis. The situation could degenerate into an “emergency” declared by President Karzai, maybe by design, or by default as ministers abandon him. Regardless, the current situation will continue to affect the presidential campaigns and the upcoming April elections. There is concern that the situation could deteriorate to the point that the election itself will not be held, a situation equally as destructive to Afghanistan as the failure to sign the BSA. Time is running out, spoilers are watching and U.S. support for a BSA is waning.