The people of Afghanistan as well as the observes of the US-Afghan war were not surprised to see Afghanistan’s newly elected President, Ashraf Ghani, signing Bi-Lateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US on the very next day he sworn in as the country’s President. In fact, he and other candidates who contested elections, had already announced during their respective election campaigns that they whole-heartedly support BSA and would sign it after they are elected. Mr. Ashraf Ghani wasted no time in fulfilling this promise. However, this promise has laid the basis for prolongation of the US’ already ‘longest war’ for at least another decade. The BSA has proved that the US is not going to withdraw from Afghanistan nor is she going to stop fighting the Taliban.
Although the US and its allies are reducing the number of troops currently fighting in Afghanistan, with some allied states withdrawing completely, BSA allows the US President, including the current and subsequent Presidents, to increase the given number of troops anytime in future.
It is significant to note that what is now being called “good” for the people of Afghanistan was not acceptable to the previous government. As such the scene and the mood at the signing ceremony was in marked contrast to the increasingly intense and even hostile exchange of expressions between the officials of Karzai government and the US government. Among other things that pushed the Karzai government against signing this agreement, one of the most important things was that this agreement would in no way bring an end to the on-going war. To a great extent this is true. For instance, this agreement would allow 9,800 US and at least 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after the international combat mission formally ends at the end of 2014. Most of them will help train and assist the struggling Afghan security forces, although some US Special Operations forces will remain to conduct counterterrorism missions.
Besides it, under the Bilateral Security Agreement’s annexes, the US military will have access to nine major land and airbases, including the massive airfields at Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar, staging areas not only for air operations in Afghanistan but also for the US drone strikes across the border in tribal Pakistan. Still, if a clinching argument is required to argue that the war isn’t actually ending or that there isn’t going to be a “post-withdrawal” scenario per se, the BSA provides it: nothing in the agreement prevents a US president from increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan. He can go well beyond the stipulated number of troops and increase the extent as well as nature of operations in Afghanistan. This is not the end of the story. In his attempt to bring peace back to Afghanistan, the newly elected Afghan President also expressed his willingness to sign a separate garrisoning accord with NATO forces, known as a Status of Forces Agreement, which would allow the NATO forces to stay a bit longer in Afghanistan. Still another aspect of the agreement is illusive enough to cast shadows on the issue of withdrawal. This undecided question is the role of US airstrikes in post-2014 scenario. Outraged by civilian casualties, Mr. Karzai had all but banned air attacks — a condition many Afghan commanders say has contributed to high casualty rate. Mr. Ghani has, unlike his predecessor, showed his willingness and signaled to reverse that stance. In a way, given these factors, the war in Afghanistan is going to remain as deadly for common Afghan people as it had been in the last year or so.
Notwithstanding these internal constraints, the signing of the BSA and the possibility of some other agreements has, to a great extent, been facilitated by the global context as well. Over the past few months, things have dramatically changed in the Middle East. The chaos which followed in Iraq following the US withdrawal has taught crucial lessons to the US planners and has forced them to re-think their withdrawal strategy. The very clause in the agreement allowing the US President to increase the number of troops as and when needed is certainly an indication of what the US planners have in their mind: a possible escalation of conflict in Afghanistan. It is quite obvious that the Taliban have not and will not stop attacking the US/NATO forces or the Afghan national Army. Keeping this in mind, it can be concluded that the BSA, the main purpose of which was training the Afghan forces, is now actually to be used as a hedge against the Taliban, and as a means to remain entrenched in Afghanistan.
That the US is not going to “withdraw” is obvious to the Afghans themselves. According to a recently held survey, Afghans remain deeply worried about security and continue to think of their country as something serving grand interests of the US. Despite the facts that elections took place and that a civilian government succeeded an elected government, the ground reality is that the Afghans, living on both sides of the border (Afghanistan and Pakistan), strongly believe that the BSA has paved the way for at least one more decade of war, miseries and decadence. All talk of progress, development and peace remain, for them, illusionary and far from real; for, as long as the US and NATO forces remain on the Afghan soil, the Taliban will keep resisting them and fighting will go on. In other words, it is absurd to talk about peace under the shadows of foreign troops; one can only talk about what course the war would take in future.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”