The South Asia Channel

Negotiating Afghanistan's future

The American raid last month that killed Osama bin Laden demands a reassessment of American strategic interests in Afghanistan and how we have been pursuing them over the past nine-and-a- half years. The most important aspect of the American relationship with Afghanistan today is the strategic partnership agreement currently under negotiation with Kabul. Despite the fact that this agreement will determine our military and economic assistance for years to come in Afghanistan, it remains out of the public debate. The administration hopes to sign this agreement before U.S. troops begin withdrawing next month, but the urge to sign a deal before then means the United States risks prematurely ceding what bargaining power it has with Kabul without receiving meaningful commitments in return.

A European diplomat recently cautioned that the Afghan government is "trying to extract from the West as much as they can now"; touting the first draft agreement in remarks to the press, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested that "we have tied up [the United States] hands and feet with our conditions." In fact, Afghanistan's near-total reliance on continued international assistance and rising U.S. domestic political pressure for withdrawal - which has only strengthened following the operation against bin Laden - offer the Obama administration a unique opportunity to demand real action on political reforms from its partner.

For the Afghan government to survive a dramatically reduced U.S. military presence and reduced flows of financial assistance, it will need to address its fatal weaknesses -- political exclusivity, overconcentration of executive power, and dependency on external aid to hold the system together. If reforms do not occur that address these flaws in the system, then the United States will be signing up to support a state that will be simply unsustainable over the mid-to long-term. 

Though details of the agreement remain murky, it appears to center around continued U.S. access rights for a handful of bases, in return for a U.S. commitment to continued assistance to the Afghan government. Some Afghan officials have suggested that as much as 80 percent of future U.S. assistance would go through the government, which would represent a major increase in the amount of U.S. funding allocated directly to government coffers. Most likely, it will also include billions of dollars in continued aid for Afghan National Security Forces. 

Given Karzai's dependence on access to international military and nonmilitary assistance, the threat of reduced aid directly imperils his ability to keep his small and fragile coalition of supporters intact. The U.S. has an interest in both preventing the disintegration of Afghanistan and in maintaining some form of military access to Afghanistan and the region, as the Jalalabad-based strike team that carried out the bin Laden raid indicates. A strategic partnership is an appropriate framework for achieving these objectives, but only if it is used to push the Afghan government to take steps so that the United States has a partner to work with over the long term.

Karzai is not wrong when he complains that the United States and other international donors have to date frequently bypassed and weakened his government by relying more on contractors, NGOs, and local power brokers in their provision of assistance than our nominal partners in the Afghan government. But Karzai's preference for a strategic partnership that cements him as a strong man in Afghanistan is not realistic.  Not only have other American allies around the world like Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt shown this model's weakness, but it would require vast flows of U.S. support indefinitely to prop Karzai- unlikely in the present and future U.S. budget environment. 

The international community is the only constituency currently capable of holding the Karzai government accountable. Therefore, the United States should commit to long-term security and financial assistance in a strategic partnership agreement only if the Afghan government makes mutual commitments related to oversight and political reform - including, among other priorities, election reform measures that can facilitate the emergence of organized political parties, a commitment by Karzai to abide by constitutionally-mandated term limits, and a greater oversight role for parliament and provincial bodies. These commitments should be matched with real consequences when gross mismanagement and corruption occurs and political exclusion continues. In cases where the international community has established clear priorities for reform, Karzai has been amenable to Western pressure - as seen most recently in the Kabul Bank scandal, where the IMF's withholding of an extension of its economic agreement with the country has forced some action, however grudging, on the part of the Afghan government.

In the aftermath of the successful raid on bin Laden, the United States needs to slow its rush to sign a deal and think much more carefully about how to structure a strategic partnership agreement so that it best serves American security interests in the region - and to leverage what influence we do have with the Afghan government to implement reforms that could set it on a path to sustainability, rather than continued and unstable rentier statehood.

Caroline Wadhams is Senior Fellow and Colin Cookman is a Research Assistant at the Center for American Progress. 

U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell/ISAF Headquarters via Getty Images

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