Apparently, today's loya jirga doesn't have final say on whether a deal to keep US forces in the country after all.
After more than a year of negotiations on extending the US military presence in Afghanistan, a draft agreement was reached between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration yesterday. The US gets immunity from Afghan prosecution for its troops. Afghanistan gets an open-ended commitment from the US to train, equip, and fund its security services.
The draft was hailed by Secretary of State John Kerry, and it was left with one last hurdle to full acceptance: the approval of an Afghan loya jirga – a meeting of tribal notables from across the country – that convened in Kabul this morning. Or so it seemed.
Not for the first time, the mercurial President Karzai threw a spanner in the works. Karzai, who rose to power with US military and financial support but has taken to attacking US involvement in Afghan affairs, told the conference that the US is not to be trusted. He also indicated that regardless of the loya jirga's decision, approving the agreement will be up to his successor, who will be chosen in a presidential election scheduled for next April.
That is almost certainly generating a collective, incredulous scream from the White House, State Department, and Pentagon. The US position has been that an agreement needed to be nailed down a year before authorization for troops in Afghanistan expires at the end of 2014, to allow for planning and budgeting.
The US was already disappointed when Karzai announced months ago that he wouldn't sign off on an agreement without the approval of both a loya jirga and the vote of the Afghan parliament. The working assumption was that those two bodies would approve, once the financial and military stakes were made clear to them. But now the question of extension is sure to be a major issue on the upcoming presidential campaign trail.
“I want this agreement to be signed after the presidential elections," Karzai told the assembly this morning. "If you agree to sign this agreement with the Americans, we will ask for some time."
Karzai also spoke of the lack of trust between him and the US and complained of how the US has spread negative stories about him "behind my back."
A discussion of signing the agreement "after" elections leaves the door open to Karzai signing the agreement himself – after his successor has been chosen but before his inauguration, which is expected in late May. But that successor, if inclined to oppose a deal, might not take kindly to a lame-duck leader tying his hands.
Karzai probably thinks he's getting maximum leverage. But delay doesn't just create the opportunity for Afghans to seek more US concessions. It also creates the chance for a political discussion about the merits of an extended stay in Afghanistan within the US Congress.
The absence of a public debate in the US on the wisdom of spending billions more on the Afghan military and police, and leaving a large contingent of soldiers in harm's way in a landlocked country, has been striking. In 2011 as Obama tried and failed to get a new agreement extending the US military presence in Iraq (Iraq refused to grant immunity from prosecution to US troops), the topic was a subject of intense media, public, and congressional interest.
But when it comes to Afghanistan, where the US helped topple the Taliban government in 2002, there's been little political will to discuss what the US is getting for its money, and whether it makes sense to continue funding a large standing army in the country. Karzai said today the agreement would see 10,000-15,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan, and the draft text envisions a US "obligation to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of [Afghan security forces]" until 2024.
The US government has already spent $55 billion training and equipping Afghan security forces in the past decade, yet the country does not now have an army that can fund its continuing operations or arrange logistics for itself. Congress is supposed to have control over spending, and there are stirrings of discontent over Obama effectively committing spending to Afghanistan on his own authority.
NBC reports this morning that a small group of senators led by Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon are seeking an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would require a congressional vote on extending the US presence in Afghanistan. Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told a Senate committee last year that the cost per US troop in Afghanistan topped $800,000. Assuming 10,000 troops, that's $8 billion a year before costs for "equipping and sustaining" Afghan troops. The Afghan National Army currently has about 190,000 people. The US military currently has about 40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.
While there hasn't been any broad movement to oppose the extension – there is little appetite among either Democrats or Republicans to appear soft on terrorism – the more this drags on, the greater the likelihood that it could become an issue.
And the argument that a large standing Afghan army is central to US security is getting harder to make. Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a daring raid in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is likewise believed to be living in that country. Sunni jihadis with an interest in attacking the US are on the rise in other states, particularly Yemen and Syria. And whoever leads the Afghan government after Karzai is highly unlikely to provide a base of support to a group like Al Qaeda again, since the government's finances will remain dependent on aid from the US, the European Union, and others.