The Curious Case of US-Afghan Security Pact

The critics say it will further undermine the sovereignty of Afghanistan, while the votaries argue it is important for country because of the vulnerability of its geopolitical position 

The contentious and much-publicized Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement (SDCA) between the United States and Afghanistan has hogged local and international headlines in recent weeks. After a lot of incongruous speculation and guesswork, the agreement got the nod from Loya Jirga  – the grand assembly of 3000 high-profile Afghan tribal elders, religious figures and political bigwigs. The influential members of Jirga met in Kabul last week and held four days of hectic deliberations coupled with intense lobbying to seal the deal. However, it still has to overcome the hurdle of Parliament to become effective.

Kabul and Washington have held wide-ranging talks on the contentious agreement in last two years. The deliberations between the two parties have mostly been marked by acrimony and disagreements. It took John Kerry’s surprise visit  to Kabul in October this year to break the ice and set the ball rolling, after which both the parties agreed in principle on most of the points. A draft of the agreement was prepared and placed before the Jirga last week to discuss and advise the government on whether or not to sign the deal.  

True to his style, President Hamid Karzai expertly tried to tilt the opinion in favour of the agreement by reading out the letter of U.S President Barack Obama , laced with honeyed rhetoric and same old cocktail of promises and pledges. However, he threw the ball in Jirga court, asking members to read the draft and letter and take a call. After four days and many marathon sessions, the assembly gave thumbs-up to the deal. However, Karzai had other plans. He welcomed the decision of Jirga members but refused to seal the agreement before upcoming April 2014 elections , much to the chagrin of U.S. officials and Jirga members.

The hardened critics of this Afghan-US security deal contend that it will further undermine the sovereignty of Afghanistan and increase its dependence on United States. The deal, they fear, will embolden the armed rebels to carry out their sinister plots with vengeance. On the other hand, the vociferous votaries of the agreement think it is important for Afghanistan because of the vulnerability of its geopolitical position. With the antagonistic neighbors and weak internal security situation, they argue, the deal is in the best interests of this country.

If the deal passes through the Parliament and Karzai signs on the dotted line, it will essentially mean the departure of U.S military troops from Afghanistan will be indefinitely delayed, beyond 2014, when all the NATO  combat troops are supposed to withdraw. The authorities of Afghanistan will not have legal jurisdiction over the U.S. military personnel with respect to offences committed by them, but the offenders will be tried in their home country. U.S. forces may undertake transit, support and related activities as necessary to support themselves while they are present in Afghanistan. U.S will not use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries, though it says nothing about drone strikes that continue unabated and lead to worst crimes against humanity. It also gives them the power to conduct raids in residential areas at night and engage in unilateral military operations, which the Afghan government had opposed.

The vast majority of Afghans are not clear on the issues of immunity and jurisdiction. Some politicians and political analysts appearing on primetime television shows have also spoken of the same consternation. The free rein leads to impunity and since these U.S. troops enjoy immunity under Afghan laws, there is a lurking fear of them committing more horrendous crimes if they stay back post 2014.

The gruesome Wardak killings , which took place between October 2012 and February 2013 in Nerkh district of Wardak province, in which 18 men disappeared following U.S. raids and detentions, have indeed become flashpoint of anger among locals in Wardak province  over the excesses committed by U.S. troops over the years. But, they are more incensed and disturbed because of the immunity from criminal prosecution these U.S. troops enjoy under Afghan laws. On November 6, Rolling Stone magazine published an article  with new information about the deep involvement and complicity of US personnel in Wardak killings.

This contentious security agreement, instead of addressing the concerns of Afghans, only makes the matters worse. While both the parties have agreed in principle on most of the points in agreement, the issue of raids at night and unilateral military operations has been the bone of contention. President Karzai is dragging his feet over the deal because he is not sure if U.S. will be able to ‘bring peace to Afghanistan’. His concerns are not entirely unwarranted if you look at the way U.S. authorities have handled the investigations  into Wardak killings and refused to cooperate with National Directorate of Security (NDS)  to bring culprits to book. Even though, according to the US-Afghan agreement, the errant soldiers will be prosecuted under U.S. laws in their home country, but they still enjoy immunity under Afghan laws, and there is no guarantee that they will cooperate with Afghan authorities in the future to investigate and probe such criminal cases. The 18 men in Wardak disappeared following U.S. raids. Though President Karzai is not against the deal per se, his refusal  to sign on the dotted line before elections is perhaps because he doesn’t want to deal with cases like Wardak before elections.

The involvement of U.S. forces in Wardak killings is only the latest case of its participation and complicity in the abuse of civilians over the last decade in Afghanistan. The official response to such gruesome incidents has always been callous and cruel. Because of the immunity, the U.S. forces manage to get away with the most horrendous crimes and abuses. Wardak killings are not an isolated case. In March 2007 in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, U.S. Marines indulged in indiscriminate fire  on people, killing atleast 19 civilians. Despite the investigation, no one was ever charged. In 2010, in Maiwand district of Kandahar, U.S. forces were implicated in killings  of several civilians. Although some junior-rung officers were charged and convicted, the commander of the units was never charged despite his direct involvement in the incident. Now, these Wardak killings have shocked the whole nation, further denting the image of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The most hideous part of it is the immunity and lack of criminal prosecution that makes these U.S. security forces villains in the eyes of Afghans. Even the Human Rights Watch  has noted that the U.S. has a meager record of investigating and prosecuting human rights abuses committed by its forces during its 12-year military presence in Afghanistan.

Under this security agreement, U.S. will have nine military bases in eight areas of Afghanistan, including Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Shindand, Helmand and Gardez. Although these are not permanent military bases, Taliban has often warned  government against having permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Just a few days back, in a statement , the spokesperson for Taliban, while terming the endorsement of security deal by Loya Jirga a ‘historic wrong’ and the security agreement ‘a slavery document’, said the permanent military bases would change into ‘permanent graveyards’ for U.S. So, security analysts fear this agreement will embolden armed rebel groups to step up their activities.

Karzai, meanwhile, is not in a mood to seal the pact before elections. Many U.S. officials have met him in last few days, including Susan Rice , the U.S. National Security Advisor and General Dunford, Commander of International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan. James F. Dobbins, the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has warned that the delay in signing the security deal may have a direct bearing on the financial aid to Afghanistan. The Head of Loya Jirga’s Consultative Committee, Hazrat Sebghatullah Mujadidi , also thinks the deal must be sealed without any further delay.

For President Karzai, it is to-be-or-not-to-be situation. But one thing is for sure, this agreement will determine the future of this country. If it clicks, Afghanistan will cruise through. If it flops, the country might well slip back into chaos and disorder. That perhaps explains the dilemma of the President.

Author is the editor of Afghan Zariza, Kabul

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