U.S. President Barack Obama had planned to use this week’s NATO summit in Wales partly to celebrate what he’d predicted would be Afghanistan’s “first democratic transfer of power in history.”
He didn’t get his wish.
The next president of Afghanistan isn’t at the summit, which began today, because the election results remain mired in controversy. The current president, Hamid Karzai, stayed home, too. After repeatedly snubbing U.S. officials, Karzai sent his defense minister.
The Bilateral Security Agreement needed to extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan beyond this year still isn’t signed, even though Pentagon officials had warned it must be in place by this month, to say nothing of arrangements for troops from other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Karzai has balked repeatedly at signing the accord he negotiated with Obama’s administration, and his successor has yet to be determined.
Even efforts to patch together a unified government with roles for both presidential candidates are foundering after one of them, Abdullah Abdullah, said he would boycott the audit of the election that he says involved massive fraud on behalf of his rival, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The candidates have written NATO leaders promising to seek a solution to their standoff, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said today at a press conference during the summit in Newport, Wales.
“I’m very pessimistic, and it’s the worst of all worlds,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “If we don’t have a reliable partner in Afghanistan, it really puts us in a difficult spot.”
Katulis said it may be too soon to dismiss as a failure the 13-year U.S. effort in Afghanistan, which so far has cost 2,342 Americans their lives, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It also has cost U.S. taxpayers about $745 billion, the National Priorities Project estimates. Still, Katulis said, “We certainly aren’t where the administration hoped we would be.”
The Obama administration and its allies had wanted to welcome Afghanistan’s new leader at the NATO summit and celebrate the signing of a security agreement that would let U.S. forces remain in the country until the end of 2016. The goal was to avoid a hasty withdrawal that could help open the way to a resurgence of Taliban forces.
“As we enter a new chapter in our relationship, we remain fully committed to Afghanistan and the hopes of the Afghan people for a peaceful, secure and prosperous future,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said today at a session on the alliance’s future role there that opened the summit.
“I call on the two candidates to work together to conclude the necessary security agreements as soon as possible,” Rasmussen said at his press conference.
Still, Afghanistan has become an afterthought for policy makers consumed by the crisis in Ukraine and efforts to combat Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria.
“Obviously we’re in a fluid situation on the ground” there, Charles Kupchan, the White House senior director for European affairs, told reporters before Obama left for Wales.
Even the Taliban took note of the change in political fortunes.
“It was planned that Afghanistan’s next leader would participate in the Wales Summit,” the Taliban said yesterday in a statement. “Now their plans have come to naught. The true reason for this failure is occupation. Unless the foreign occupation of Afghanistan ends, the country will not be able to resolve its longstanding crisis.”
The Obama administration is persisting in efforts to broker an agreement on a new government.
Secretary of State John Kerry dispatched Doug Frantz, assistant secretary for public affairs, to Kabul this week “to convey the administration’s full support for a peaceful and democratic transfer of power” and stress the need for “an audit process that ensures a legitimate outcome and agreement on the details of a government of national unity,” according to a State Department statement.
Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, said he hoped a unified government could still be formed this month.
“The current fragile situation requires both candidates to reach an agreement in a bit for Afghanistan to survive its current economic crisis and growing insecurity,” Rahmani said in a phone interview.
“Unfortunately, insecurity is on a growing path in the country,” he said. “Afghanistan should expect more Taliban takeovers of districts and tough fighting with them in 2015.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who visits Afghanistan, said he also remains hopeful that a political solution can be reached in a deal between Abdullah and Ghani.
“I’m not surprised it’s hard,” O’Hanlon said by e-mail. “But Ghani and Abdullah are both capable men, and both understand that an Afghanistan in crisis/paralysis could lead to an end of Western aid and military help. So I still think there’ll be a solution, even if not necessarily in time for the NATO summit.”
If a new government can be formed and a new security agreement signed, Obama has called for extending the U.S. military presence until the end of his term, while gradually reducing the number of troops.
The plan calls for reducing this year’s deployment of more than 30,000 troops to about 9,800 by the beginning of next year. That number would be reduced by about half by the end of next year and cut again to a small security force for the U.S. embassy in Kabul by the end of 2016.
Republican lawmakers have criticized Obama for announcing a firm troop withdrawal date that lets the enemy know when the U.S. will be gone.
“The current realities on the ground strongly indicate that the present U.S. approach to transition in Afghanistan will fail at the military, political, economic and governance levels,” said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who wrote a paper this week on the “strategic vacuum” of U.S. policy in the region.
The troop withdrawal plan “is scarcely a recipe for success,” Cordesman wrote. “The end result seems highly likely to be premature and poorly planned withdrawal, and Vietnam and Iraq scarcely set a reassuring precedent.”
Now, the lack of a signed security agreement that would provide assurances on matters such as immunity for U.S. troops from local prosecution creates the possibility of a complete American and NATO troop withdrawal this year.
“The risk that we would totally withdraw begins to be high in September,” Marine General Joseph Dunford, the former commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, told Congress in March. “That’s simply a function of the tasks that need to be accomplished and how many days we have to accomplish those tasks.”
The U.S. exit strategy was called into question last month by an insider attack against troops in Kabul. The killing of Major General Harold Greene, the highest-ranking U.S. officer to die in Afghanistan, prompted a review of safety protocols. The two-star officer died when a man dressed in an Afghan soldier’s uniform opened fire at a training academy, injuring as many as 15 other people.
“The Taliban are now exploiting the current election crisis,” said Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based political and security analyst. “They keep fighting now in the southern provinces of Afghanistan” and conduct guerrilla-style, hit-and-run attacks against Afghan forces, he said.
“This generates and increases casualties and panic for Afghans,” he said.
In the latest attack, Taliban fighters armed with heavy, light weapons and suicide vests attacked government offices in eastern Ghazni province, Deputy Governor Mohammad Ali Ahmadi said today by phone. He said 13 members of Afghan security forces were killed by truck bombs and in clashes with the militants, as well as two civilians. More than 60 people were injured.