Afghanistan’s interior minister said tough negotiations with the U.S. will pay off in a security agreement letting American forces maintain a presence in his country after most troops depart next year.
“The most important part is we want the highest level of friendship and partnership and the longest friendship with the U.S.,” Umer Daudzai said in an interview yesterday at his office in Kabul. The agreement is taking time because “we Afghans want to make sure that the details are such that all Afghans subscribe to it, both my generation and the next generation.”
Agreement on a limited U.S. presence to train Afghan forces and fight terrorism has foundered in part over Afghanistan’s demand that the U.S. commit to defending the South Asian nation against external threats, a reference to insurgents backed by neighboring Pakistan.
The U.S. “will be committed to help us overcome any external threat, whether obvious and conventional or proxy and unconventional,” said Daudzai, 56, who has served as President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff and as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan and Iran.
At the same time, Afghanistan has resisted the American demand that any remaining troops be exempt from local prosecution. Failure to reach such a status-of-forces agreement led President Barack Obama to pull the last U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011.
The on-and-off negotiations on an accord don’t “mean that you may not sign it or we may not sign it,” Daudzai said. “My instinct tells me it’ll be signed,” he said, without predicting when.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reached a tentative agreement with Karzai last month over a draft text after talks that lasted 10 hours more than was planned. Karzai has called for a loya jirga, a national consultative assembly of tribal elders, to meet this month to consider and approve the accord.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, has warned of “grave consequences” for the U.S. and its allies if the agreement is signed.
Daudzai, who was a mujahedeen fighter against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, was named interior minister in September.
In the interview in his office, near several embassy compounds on a street blocked off from vehicles, Daudzai discussed his long-term plans for the Afghan Local Police force, which he oversees.
The local police, a community-based militia that’s being trained by U.S. special forces, was set up in 2010 to provide enforcement in areas where the national police force is weak.
Some Afghans have accused the militia of atrocities, and some officers have been involved in insider attacks against U.S. and allied forces. In September 2012, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization temporarily suspended training for the Afghan Local Police after a spate of attacks.
Deaths of innocent civilians have stopped since he assumed office, said Daudzai, who’s responsible for all police forces in the country. “There are combined special-forces and police operations every night, but we’ve streamlined our operations and we’ve applied cautions to bring it down to zero,” he said.
The ministry is weighing a long-term strategy that foresees the police “making a U-turn to its normal duty” as a law-enforcement agency rather than fighting an insurgency, Daudzai said.
The Afghan Local Police force has about 24,500 members currently, according to an Afghan law enforcement official, who asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to discuss details.
Daudzai said the force strength will increase in 2014 and 2015, to guarantee safety during national elections next year and then when a new government takes office. Starting in 2016, the local force will be gradually reduced and will be phased out by 2018, Daudzai said.
Many local officers will be absorbed into the Afghan National Police, the primary law-enforcement agency, Daudzai said. The rest may be let go to “become businessmen, or go back to their village and become farmers.”
Top police officials have been disciplined to send a message to the force that they’re not to support or work against any candidate in the elections, Daudzai said.
Fair elections and a smooth transfer of power from Karzai to a successor may determine the continued flow of international aid to Afghanistan, which has been instrumental to its economy’s growth at an average of 9 percent a year since 2001.
Daudzai said he’s also cracking down on corruption within the police because “if this agency is clean, then we can implement strategies and laws for fighting corruption” in other agencies and ministries.
Progress in Afghanistan has been hampered by “the deeply embedded nature of societal corruption,” the U.S. Defense Department said in a July report, citing in particular the Afghan military.