Yet again, United States Special Representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, was recently in Pakistan to move the Afghan peace process forward. With bright prospects of success, the most important question would be the future of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul. Because in case US-Taliban talks succeed and the latter somehow agree to become part of the political process in Afghanistan, some compromises would have to be made on the BSA signed by both countries in 2014. This also would have implications for regional peace and stability, particularly of Pakistan.
The Afghan peace process in the context of talks between Washington and the Taliban in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in recent months although has not been very successful, yet the parleys have created an atmosphere for peacemaking in the war-ravaged country. In order to move forward, Khalilzad visited Pakistan on April 4 and is expected to visit Afghanistan and other regional countries. The visit was made at a very important time, not only from the standpoint to have a new round of US-Taliban talks, but also that the traditional Taliban “Spring Offensive” is just round the corner. More importantly, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is about to complete his five-year constitutional tenure and new elections would be held soon. Understandably, Washington has been trying to make a breakthrough in talks with the Taliban before the next presidential elections in Afghanistan, so that the insurgents could be made part of the process and a solution to the decades-long conflict in the country could be found. The Afghan Taliban, who have been waging an insurgency against the US control of Afghanistan since 2001, and have been involved in large-scale violence against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) backed by US forces, had been uncompromising to hold talks unless Washington pulled out all of its forces from Afghan soil. However, due to Pakistan’s strong influence on Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan prevailed upon the Afghan Taliban to show flexibility and thus much-awaited Washington-Taliban talks started last year. Earlier, a couple of rounds of talks were held between Washington and the Taliban but they were completely inconsequential.
Former US President Barrack Hussein Obama had pledged to withdraw all forces along with that of NATO allies from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, expect a residual force. However, before withdrawing almost all of its forces from Afghanistan, Obama had signed a BSA with Kabul on the insistence of the latter, so that the country could not fall yet again into total chaos. The security agreement which was finalized by Washington and Kabul after years of interlocutions could not be put into practice at once due to the refusal of the then outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign it. Karzai had left it to the incoming president to ratify or otherwise. When the new president, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, took oath of office, he did not waste time and ratified the US-Afghanistan BSA. The terms of the BSA provided for the continued presence of around 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan, even after the cut-off date of December 31, 2014, for the withdrawal of all international, mostly American, combat forces from Afghanistan.
The BSA provided the US legal jurisdiction over troops and Defense Department civilians, while the US or foreign contractors were subjected to the Afghan judicial process. The pact also provided for US counterterrorism operations in coordination with the Afghans, with the goal that the Afghan forces should be in the lead. The agreement also noted that the US troops would not conduct combat operations unless they were ”mutually agreed” on by the US and Afghans.
Way back in 2014, the delay in declaring wining candidate, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, as the next president due to allegations of massive fraud by the rival candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, and following the scrutiny of nearly eight million votes had put the critically significant BSA on the hold, creating uncertainty about the future of the foreign troops in Afghanistan. Only after the formation of a “unity” government in Afghanistan in September 2014, wherein Abdullah was appeased by giving him the unconstitutional position of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), paved the way for the signing of the BSA by Afghanistan. Ghani took no time in signing the BSA with Washington, demonstrating that he had assumed a pro-Washington stance from the very outset. However, due to his near failure to control the situation in Afghanistan in the last five years in office, Washington is quite annoyed with him and, therefore, holding direct talks with the Taliban, which is criticized by the Kabul government.
Keeping in view the issues which Ghani had to face inter alia including the rampaging Afghan Taliban insurgency, political instability and melting down economy, his tilt towards Washington was understandable. The latter also shrewdly trapped the new Afghan president to fall back upon it, as it was through US efforts that a recalcitrant and fastidious Abdullah was pacified and reconciled to accept Ghani as president and himself CEO. However, this mutual arrangement has failed to help bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
The US had been stressing on Kabul to sign the security agreement as early as possible. The truce aimed, apart from continued stay of 8,000 to 12,000 US troops, a string of military bases across Afghanistan to provide security to the Afghan state and government from internal and external threats. The urgency shown by Washington for a bilateral agreement for security with Kabul in place as soon as possible was meant to plan for the post-2014 situation in the war-ravaged country. The BSA, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, has been an assurance of a semblance of stability. Ironically, the Afghan leadership ignored its role, specifically policy planning on its part in stability in the country and has been trying to shift its own responsibility to international factors, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours and the US. This attitude of the Afghan leadership has not mitigated the problems of the country and instead increased the woes of Afghans.
On its part, the Afghan leadership wanted to use the BSA to absolve itself of the responsibility of protection and security of Afghanistan and the state. This attitude, as pointed earlier, has not worked. Now with the Taliban engaged in talks with Washington directly, they would not agree to the continued presence of the US forces in Afghanistan in any capacity, as provided by the terms of the BSA. Resultantly, the BSA would wither have to be terminated or revisited. Given the nature of the Taliban obstinacy, one is of the view that they would insist upon scotching the BSA. Otherwise, there would be no breakthrough in Washington-Taliban talks. The termination of the BSA would have implications for Afghanistan, as in case the US withdraws even its residual forces from Afghanistan, whether in the situation there could be any guarantee that the country would not fall once again into chaos and uncertainty with the Taliban forcibly trying to trounce its rival Afghan factions. The whole scenario would have far-reaching implications for Pakistan and one cannot be convinced that the Afghan Taliban have what it takes to stabilize Afghanistan as a political force either single-handedly or in collaboration with other Afghan factions, while the compromising ability of the militia is minimal.