As Afghan leaders debate a draft security agreement with the United States, the two nations must recognize they are balancing more than each one's interests. After 12 years of war and joint efforts, the two are now bound up in common purpose.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration inked a deal that would obligate the United States to be a defense partner of Afghanistan for another decade, possibly even protecting the “major ally” from invasion. For Americans wary of one more military commitment, this new alliance may seem more entangling than enlightened.
For Afghans, too, assuming their elected lawmakers and an assembly of elders (loya jirga) approve the proposed bilateral pact, the agreement will be a historic first: After centuries of repelling foreign invaders, the Afghan people will be asking foreign troops to stay and possibly assist in defending them.
These two perspectives on the same 24-page draft document are worth pointing out. Each nation – a war-tired US and an Afghanistan still getting on its democratic feet – has made a heavy political lift to come up with a security agreement that will be the cornerstone of a long strategic partnership.
The diplomatic effort is an echo of the early years of the cold war when the US forged multiple alliances with many countries, from Latin America to Western Europe to Southeast Asia. Most of those military partnerships have endured well past their original purpose of containing communist expansion. Like the cold-war coalitions, the US-Afghan agreement defines a number of shared interests, such as combating terrorists and preserving Afghanistan’s territorial integrity. Those interests first began to align after 9/11 with the 2001 US invasion to oust the Taliban and eliminate Al Qaeda training grounds.
Since then, the two have worked together to curb the heroin trade, build up Afghan women’s rights, create a democracy and prosperity in Afghanistan, and constrain the meddling influence of regional powers.
After 12 years of effort – more than 2,200 American combat deaths and more than $90 billion in aid – the US and Afghanistan have gone beyond mere shared interests. By planning to keep thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan on nine military bases, the US will be treating the country almost as it did postwar Japan and Germany: as partners in promoting shared values.
The security pact is only one part of a US and NATO plan to help Afghanistan become a “normal” nation. As the recent commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, told one reporter, the agreement “acknowledges that we as a people and the Afghan people are bound together in a common future.”
Many countries need help, but Afghanistan’s peculiar history – tribal warlordism, a Soviet invasion, a Taliban takeover, Al Qaeda terrorism, a US-NATO invasion – have resulted in the paths of the US and Afghanistan becoming entwined.
For the US, walking away has not been an option, as was the case with Iraq in 2011. And for the Afghans, resorting to old xenophobia and internal rivalries is also not an option. The pact promises a bonding that can bring out the best in both of them.