Despite approval of elders, Karzai holds off on agreement with US

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the Loya Jirga, a gathering of Afghan leaders, on Nov. 24, 2013, when the group endorsed a proposed security agreement with the U.S. to keep a military training and assistance force in Afghanistan past the end of 2014.

Long thought to be a formality, a continuing international military presence in Afghanistan is now in question after Afghan President Hamid Karzai defied the recommendation of his own handpicked council of leaders and refused to sign a security agreement with the United States.

The bilateral security agreement is a U.S. condition for maintaining a small contingent of troops in the country after the withdrawal of combat troops by the end of 2014.

Perhaps with the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq on their mind, remaining U.S. forces would help train government forces and carry out counterterrorism missions. The exact numbers haven’t been announced but between 8,000 and 12,000 foreign troops would likely remain in the country. That is contingent on the bilateral security agreement, which includes a stipulation that would allow the U.S. to retain legal jurisdiction over American troops accused of crimes in Afghanistan.

Karzai has been noncommittal about the agreement, though he convened a Loya Jirga, or grand council of leaders, in November to weigh in on the matter. After saying he would respect the decision of the 2,500-delegate council, he seemed caught off-guard when it voted overwhelmingly to support the agreement and demanded it be signed by the end of the year, which the U.S. also has advocated as necessary for planning a follow-on mission.

Karzai insisted the signature should wait until after presidential elections in April to choose his successor. Then he made a series of additional demands — including securing peace in a country still in the midst of a bloody war — to be met before signing. U.S. defense officials originally said if the agreement was not signed by the end of the year, they would not have time to prepare for military deployments and would have to pull all troops from the country, though they have since backed off that rigid timeline. Without a U.S. presence, no other foreign allies are likely to keep a military presence in the country.

A similar dispute in Iraq derailed efforts to keep a small force of U.S. troops in that country beyond the end of 2011, and many Afghans worry their country could face a fate similar to Iraq’s, which has seen violence spiral since the American military withdrawal.

A series of talks between Karzai and high-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, went nowhere. The chill between Washington and Kabul was such that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel didn’t even meet with Karzai on a visit to Afghanistan in early December.

After more than 12 years at war, the American public has grown weary of Afghanistan and support in the European countries supporting the NATO-led military effort has been even lower.

While the Afghan security forces have made strides and taken over most of the day-to-day fighting in the country, they lack a viable air force, sophisticated intelligence capabilities and advanced technology, and also struggle with logistics. Many experts worry that without continued international support, Afghan troops will struggle to battle an insurgency that is still entrenched in the country. Others argue that if NATO has been unable to win the war to this point, a small residual force won’t make much of a difference anyway.

At stake is not only the future of the war in Afghanistan, but also foreign aid which the country’s government relies on almost entirely to pay its bills. Without an international military presence, aid groups will be more hesitant to operate in a country that is still deeply dangerous for aid workers, as was highlighted by the murder of six employees of a French nongovernmental organization in northern Afghanistan in late November.

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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