The next thirteen months will be critical for Afghanistan and its neighbours, as for future regional stability. How well prepared is the country and various international stakeholders in Afghanistan to navigate the three key transitions that lie ahead: political, security and economic? Also important is a fourth transition: forging a regional accord for the post-2014 order in Afghanistan, once it becomes clearer what that order might be.
Pakistan has a fundamental interest in how these transitions will proceed because of their obvious repercussions for its peace and stability. So the key question is whether various dimensions of these interdependent transitions are receiving necessary attention from the main players in Afghanistan. The answer is not yet, for a number of reasons.
The military transition continues to consume the predominant share of attention with international focus fixed on the US concluding the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Kabul, which will allow for a residual Nato military presence beyond 2014. It may be, as proponents of the BSA claim, that this military presence will contribute to an environment of confidence for the April 2014 presidential elections and ensure that economic engagement and assistance continues from otherwise war-weary western legislatures.
But it is also true that the primacy BSA has received and prolonged wrangling over it between Washington and Kabul, due mainly to President Hamid Karzai’s brinkmanship, has pushed other, more consequential aspects of the transition further down the priority list, if not the backburner.
Almost everyone acknowledges that political dynamics inside Afghanistan and the region will be the principal determinant of post-2014 stability. Yet this is not where diplomatic energy or capital is being expended. For the past several months, protracted BSA negotiations have dominated the agenda. That remains the case today.
US officials have struggled to deal with an Afghan president who has played the BSA issue down to the wire, stringing out talks on terms for the accord, and then raising new conditions after the deal’s endorsement in last month’s Loya Jirga. Announcing he would not sign the document even though his opening speech to the jirga called for its approval, Karzai declared it would be up to his successor to finalise this after elections.
The Obama administration and its Nato allies have continued to press for the accord to be signed before this year ends. A Nato ministerial meeting on December 3 intensified pressure by warning there would be no post-2014 mission without a BSA. But after meeting Karzai last week in Kabul, America’s special envoy James Dobbins said the president still refused to sign the security deal. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who visited Kabul soon after, did not meet Karzai, which indicated that the impasse continued.
Frustrated American officials acknowledge what is behind Karzai’s latest manoeuvre is the knowledge that this is “the last rug in his rug shop”. In other words, once Karzai signs off on the BSA, he would become all but irrelevant. Also Karzai may be trying to bargain his acceptance of the BSA in exchange for Washington’s tacit endorsement of his presidential candidate, to insure his political future.
That is how his opponents, including presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah, have read his gambit. They have cast his refusal to sign as a negotiating ploy to secure either American backing for his ‘favoured’ candidate or “non-interference” in the election – code for not making a fuss about any fraud in that process.
US officials have rejected Karzai’s latest conditions and rule out any election “bargain”. But they are at a loss about what to do except renew the zero option threat – a complete withdrawal of US troops. This, however, has already been dismissed as a “bluff” by Karzai’s aides. So have US warnings that delay will mean the international “coalition will fragment”, and military and economic assistance will “start to erode.”
The festering dispute over the BSA is casting a shadow on the environment for the April 2014 presidential election. The uncertainty that has been fuelled could affect the election process in unpredictable ways, quite apart from distracting attention from what needs to be done to ensure that it is a free and fair exercise and not a repeat of the controversial 2009 poll, which was marred by ballot fraud.
More significantly, the aspect of the political transition even more crucial to Afghanistan’s future – a peace process leading to internal Afghan political accommodation – is yet to be purposively addressed. Indeed this is now in greater danger of receding into the background.
If a diplomatic process had been set in motion after May’s promising development of the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, serious efforts could have been directed to try to insure a relatively violence-free election. In the absence of any political engagement, the Taliban have little incentive to support a peaceful election, which their leader Mullah Omar has dismissed as “irrelevant”, urging people not to participate.
Fear of annoying Karzai lest he refuses to yield on the BSA, has urged Washington to all but abandon efforts to revive the Doha process. This, despite the fact that Taliban representatives did not leave Qatar even after their office was closed, and their subsequent indication of interest in renewing diplomatic engagement.
The US has balked at going ahead with a move that could have ended the impasse and helped trigger a process leading to an eventual intra-Afghan dialogue. This involved a five-for-one prisoner deal – exchanging five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo for Bowe Bergdahl, the sole American prisoner of war in Taliban custody. Although American officials say this is still on the table there is no sign of movement on this.
Meanwhile, with barely four months left in office, Karzai has continued to insist on terms for the dialogue that are impossible to meet because the Taliban remain firm in their longstanding refusal to talk to Kabul. With elections looming, the Taliban have even less incentive to talk to a political dispensation nearing its end.
All this has generated the widely held view that any serious peace effort towards Afghan reconciliation will now have to wait out the April election. This narrows the diplomatic window available – April till December 2014 – to get a credible process going, much less achieve progress towards a political settlement ahead of the drawdown deadline. Track two meetings – between Afghans from different backgrounds and Taliban representatives – which could have played a helpful, preparatory role, were abandoned last year due to Karzai’s strident opposition.
A year or more ago the expectation among different stakeholders was that by now a fully-fledged peace process would be underway and sufficiently advanced to even yield regional ceasefires as the prelude to bringing fighting to an end before December 2014. But none of this has happened. This makes for a troubled outlook for the political transition – on which everything else hinges.
In consequence the transition at the regional level is also on hold. As the shape of post-2014 Afghanistan is still a work in progress so is the process of evolving a regional consensus. Plenty of sanctimonious communiqués have been adopted in recent years by international conferences on Afghanistan, which commit states to respecting the country’s independence and sovereignty.
But the challenge is to move from the declaratory to the practical, avoid competitive security strategies and ensure that everyone plays by the same rules rather than seek to fill any post-2014 security vacuum that might emerge. Regional political dynamics have a better chance of being resolved once fundamentals about post-2014 Afghanistan become clearer. A situation of flux is not a promising foundation for regional consensus.
In sum, the time lost to prolonged negotiations on the BSA and lack of focus on peace efforts have put Afghanistan’s most critical transitions in jeopardy and heightened the risk of an unstable outcome after December 2014.