National Security

The Best Deal on Offer

Negotiations around the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the United States and Afghanistan are testing the countries' relationship to the limit. In a recent interview with French daily Le Monde, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the United States of behaving like a colonial power, launching psychological warfare on the Afghan people, and, essentially, using the BSA to blackmail Afghanistan.

Mistrust and mismatched perceptions on both sides are fraying tempers and hardening negotiating positions. But they must not derail a security deal rooted in common interests. Too much is at stake, both for the United States and the long-suffering Afghan people, as well as the broader South Asia region.

In deferring the decision to sign the BSA and prolonging negotiations around the pact, Karzai is tempting fate. The stakes include the stability and security of Afghanistan and its neighbors, including volatile and nuclear-armed Pakistan. They also include the security of the United States and its allies, as 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, in 2004 and 2005, respectively, so tragically demonstrated.

Exercising the "zero option" to withdraw all troops by the end of 2014 would pull the rug out from under Afghanistan, serving no one other than the Taliban. Massive investments since 2001 by the US, its allies and the Afghans themselves would be put in jeopardy.

Prolonging the uncertainty around the BSA is already having a destabilizing psychological and political impact on Afghanistan. Many Afghans are emigrating or moving their financial capital out of the country. And anxiety is increasing about the worst-case scenario: international abandonment and a descent into chaos that sucks in Afghanistan's neighbors, with disastrous economic and humanitarian consequences, large-scale population displacement, sharp increases in narcotic production, and the return of transnational terrorist groups using the country as a safe-haven.

Many Afghans are just as exasperated as the United States by Karzai's refusal to approve the BSA, even after the consultative Loya Jirga (grand assembly) of Afghan leaders authorized him to do so. They argue that by not signing, Karzai is prioritizing his own self-interest over Afghanistan's interests, and that he will be ultimately responsible if the zero option becomes a reality.

By generating uncertainty around the BSA, Karzai is ensuring that he remains the central political actor in Afghanistan, despite being at the end of his presidency. It also gives him greater leverage over the candidates vying to replace him.

He also has his legacy in mind. Assuming the responsibility for a long-term presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is no light matter, and Karzai does not want to be remembered as the leader who compromised Afghan sovereignty. This concern helps explain his sensitivity about international forces entering Afghan homes, and consistent criticism over civilian casualties caused by U.S. and NATO forces.

Karzai seems convinced that the United States needs the agreement for its own strategic objectives, including as a base for launching counterterrorist operations in Pakistan, and that he is therefore negotiating from a position of strength. This view is shared by many Afghans for whom it is beyond belief that, at a time when the insurgency is as vigorous as ever, their country can go, in U.S. eyes, from being strategically crucial to disposable, as the zero option implies.

Karzai may also want to pave the way for a renewed peace process, despite the refusal, at least publicly, of the Taliban to negotiate with his government. He is not alone in believing that the way to move forward is not by fighting Taliban foot soldiers and killing their field commanders, but by bringing their Pakistan-based leadership to the table. Karzai's argument is that only the United States can adjust Pakistan's attitude towards the Afghan Taliban; a BSA that does not acknowledge this is hard for him to swallow.

However, while some of these concerns are understandable, they do not justify the risk of undermining the BSA. Doing so threatens two things on which Afghanistan's future depends: Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that are capable of containing the insurgency, and a state that is able to meet its citizens' basic needs -- security, law and order, jobs, and access to services like health care and education. Afghanistan is heavily dependent upon its international partners for both.

ANSF capacity and capability has improved in recent years, and Afghans are proud of their armed forces. But the ANSF cannot be sustained without technical and financial support -- projected to be approximately $4 billion a year -- from the international community, particularly the United States.

Without the BSA, Western political support to continue these subsidies will weaken, if not evaporate. Without the money to pay the troops, the ANSF, like the army of then-President Mohammad Najibullah when it stopped receiving Soviet subsidies in 1992, may collapse.

Afghanistan's development also depends upon foreign aid. Despite progress in recent years in mobilizing domestic revenues, 90 percent of the country's budget comes from international donors. And its considerable natural resource wealth will not be exploited or generate revenues until security improves.

Facing other priorities, donor commitments made in Tokyo in 2012 to provide an additional $16 billion over the next four years to Afghanistan are vulnerable. While it is clear that Afghanistan must -- and can -- become more self-sufficient and use fewer development resources more wisely, it is equally clear that this cannot happen overnight. A full withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops would likely result in steep and sudden reductions in both military and civilian assistance.

Unpaid security forces and a cash-starved government unable to meet the needs and expectations of a rapidly growing and youthful population will increase Afghanistan's vulnerability to the Taliban, rapacious warlords, and criminal gangs.

But bad news emanating from Afghanistan should not obscure the achievements it has made, albeit at great expense, since 2001. The country has been transformed, in terms of its political life and constitution, media, economy, and social progress, including rights for women and girls. Hasty international disengagement will put all this in jeopardy.

From its perspective, the United States has exercised great patience with Karzai, who is miscalculating the mood in Washington, where politicians are increasingly skeptical as to why Afghanistan should receive so much U.S. taxpayer money. But after the hundreds of billions of dollars spent since 2001, $8 billion per year to sustain the gains and increase the prospects for a stable Afghanistan will be money well spent.

The BSA has already involved numerous compromises. Neither party will ever see it as ideal. But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. It is the best deal on offer -- and it should be signed as soon as possible.

Michael Keating is a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House and former deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.

Andrew Wilder is the vice president of the Center for South and Central Asia at the United States Institute of Peace, and founder of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.