Afghanistan: The war is over! Long live the war!

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Delegates listen to Afghan President Hamid Karzai deliver a speech during a four-day long loya jirga, a meeting of over 2,000 Afghan tribal elders and leaders in Kabul in November 2011.
Massoud Hossaini

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — A Loya Jirga, or grand council, gathered in Kabul Thursday to debate Afghanistan’s future, notably the document that could keep thousands of United States soldiers — and billions of dollars — in the country indefinitely.

But as President Hamid Karzai addressed the more than 2,000 invited delegates, he dropped a bombshell that again could torpedo the entire deal.

“If you approve this agreement, I want this agreement to be signed after the presidential elections,” he said.

Afghans go to the polls in April, and Karzai is constitutionally barred from running again. It was not clear whether he meant that he himself would sign the accord, or leave it to his successor.

In any case, the US is not likely to be willing to wait that long.

Washington had wanted the deal set by the end of October.

So even if the council does approve the document, there's no guarantee anything will come of it. The draft would then have to go to the Afghan parliament for approval.

The Loya Jirga is enshrined in Afghanistan's constitution, but it's regarded as a purely consultative body, with no legal teeth.

Critics argue that President Karzai convened the assembly to give an illusion of popular support to what is all but a done deal: the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would, in effect, turn Afghanistan into a US protectorate for the foreseeable future.

On Wednesday, hours before the council’s opening, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he and Karzai had finalized the draft to be reviewed by the Loya Jirga.

The details have been painstakingly worked out over months, with plenty of sound and fury on both sides. Afghanistan has demanded that its sovereignty be respected; Washington has insisted it is ready to walk away from Afghanistan completely if it does not have freedom to maneuver.

But, as the draft agreement makes clear, both sides see few alternatives to continuing this close, if troubled, relationship.

Without US money and military support, experts warn, Afghanistan will almost certainly descend into war and chaos following the withdrawal of international troops scheduled for the end of 2014. This, in turn, could have dire consequences for a volatile region.

For the US, abandoning Afghanistan now would also be tantamount to an acknowledgement that the past 12 years have been an exercise in futility, which seems to be the general consensus among political analysts specializing in Afghanistan.

Still, that would be a difficult admission for a president in search of a legacy.

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A preliminary version of the “Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement,” dated July 25, was given to the media on Tuesday, and makes for instructive reading.

It commits the US “to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world.”

The “training, equipping, advising, and sustaining” bit will require extensive financial support for years, if not decades, to come.

According to the independent Afghan Study Group, the costs for maintaining the Afghan security could run to more than $4 billion per year.

The Afghan government cannot afford the price tag, and, the policy group adds, “Afghanistan’s ability to close the gap between domestic revenue and spending is becoming a more distant goal, likely to be reached only after 2032.”

Keeping Afghanistan together will also mean thousands of US troops — exactly how many is still under discussion. The former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, has submitted plans for 6,000, 10,000 or 20,000 soldiers, with different risk factors associated with each level.

Current NATO commander Gen. Joseph Dunford says, despite some progress, the Afghan National Security Forces’ “capabilities are not yet sustainable.”

While both sides may realize they are locked together, neither Afghanistan nor the US wants to appear too eager to give away the store.

President Karzai is already under attack at home as an American puppet. This has prompted him at various times to stage elaborate tantrums in which he alternately threatens to run off and join the Taliban, accuses the international community of colluding with Afghanistan’s enemies, or predicts that Afghans will rise up and throw off their NATO oppressors.

With the BSA, it has meant digging in his heels on a point he could not possibly win: immunity for US troops.

As it stands now, the agreement gives the US legal jurisdiction over its soldiers and government civilians in Afghanistan. Karzai had demanded that those accused of crimes in Afghanistan be tried under Afghan law by Afghan courts.

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Karzai then insisted that US forces be barred from entering Afghan homes, a requirement that would put an end to the controversial night raids that have so angered Afghans.

This week Karzai agreed to concede this point, provided that he receive a letter from Washington admitting to past mistakes and promising to avoid future ones, The New York Times reported.

Announcing the accord Wednesday, Kerry reportedly denied an apology had been made or requested.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice bristled at the notion that Washington owed Afghanistan any sort of apology.

“Quite the contrary, we have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgents and Al Qaeda. So that [letter of apology] is not on the table,” she told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday evening.

Some would disagree. Over the past 12 years, there have been many occasions in which US troops have been accused or implicated in the killing of Afghan civilians during botched night raids. One such incident, in Paktia province, resulted in the deaths of two pregnant women and a teenaged girl.

Throughout the war there have been cases where US generals and officials have expressed regret over civilian casualties; there are many others where any wrongdoing was denied.

Karzai is now pushing for a more general US apology at the Loya Jirga.

Secretary of State John Kerry declined Karzai’s invitation to Kabul this week to address the council, according to The Washington Post.

Karzai had also invited the Taliban to come to the gathering to have their say on the onward security arrangements. Their answer came last Saturday, in the form of a suicide attack near the Loya Jirga tent that killed 13 people, including several children, and injured at least 29 more.

Former Loya Jirgas have also been marred by violence. In 2010, a rocket and mortar attack on the assembly resulted in the dismissal of Afghanistan’s two top security officials.

Afghanistan’s parliament is cool to the idea of a Jirga; it maintains that the constitution gives the legislature the power to approve international treaties. Many lawmakers are boycotting the gathering.

“We don’t need it — it’s pointless,” Fawzia Koofi, a female parliamentarian, told the Los Angeles Times. “The president is putting the decision in the wrong hands and the wrong mouths. He should just sign the agreement and send it to parliament.”

Even the head of the Jirga, Sebghatullah Mojadeddi, does not think it all that necessary.

“There was no need for holding the Advisory Loya Jirga for signing the bilateral security agreement,” Mojadeddi told an Afghan news outlet. “This could have been solved through discussions with the United States.”

The Loya Jirga, which will most likely paralyze the capital for close to a week and will take about $1.3 million out of the national budget, is a costly and dangerous exercise, critics say, providing the illusion of democracy without any of the substance. The hundreds of provincial and district council chiefs who will attend, most of them appointed directly by Karzai, will most likely do whatever the president tells them to.

“The president should consult experts on the law, politics, economics and military affairs, as well as political parties and civil society institutions … not people who know nothing of such matters,” political analyst Atiqullah Amarkhel told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Kabul. “These people can’t do anything except raise and lower their hands when it comes to a vote.”

Journalist Jean MacKenzie worked as a reporter in Afghanistan from October 2004 to December 2011, first as the head of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, then as a senior correspondent for GlobalPost.