WASHINGTON— U.S. and NATO military commanders in Afghanistan are reportedly developing plans to deploy a NATO military force in Afghanistan this year designed to assume a training mission in 2015, but small and nimble enough to be withdrawn if the Afghan government does not sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that lays out conditions for NATO’s continued security presence in the country.
President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign the BSA even though it has popular support and was approved by a traditional grand council or Loya Jirga. The U.S. has warned if the BSA is not signed it will proceed with the so-called “Zero Option” and pull all U.S. forces from the country by the end of the year.
Karzai has said he objects to BSA provisions that allow night raids by NATO forces and also any U.S. initiatives to negotiate with the Taliban. He has also said his successor should sign the agreement because it will be up to him to deal with the consequences.
A warning from Obama
U.S. officials say they do not expect the BSA to be signed until after presidential elections in April, but President Obama recently warned Karzai in a phone call the longer the wait the less effective a BSA will be. “We will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S mission,” Obama said in his phone call with Karzai, adding that “Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”
Jason Campbell, of the U.S based Rand Corporation says it is Afghans who are most affected by the uncertainty over the BSA. “Quite frankly from my position the people who are suffering the most from the delay in signing of the BSA are Afghans because by not knowing the level of dedicated support that the international community would provide beyond this year, you have lingering doubts and that affects the confidence of the Afghan people,” said Campbell.
Lisa Curtis, a south Asian expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation believes that the U.S is losing patience with the Afghan war. “I think the U.S is really losing patience and that was indicated by Obama’s phone call to Karzai which was essentially a warning that the longer the Afghan government delays in signing the BSA, the likely that the smaller the number of U.S forces after 2014 will be,” said Curtis.
Zero option is on the table
Following Obama’s phone call with Karzai, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the Pentagon has begun planning for a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014. The “Zero Option” is one option that U.S officials will consider amongst other options in regards to a post 2014 mission in Afghanistan.
Sayed Tayeb Jawad, a former Afghan ambassador to the U.S. says the zero option should not be taken lightly.
“This is an option; this is an option that has some serious backers in the U.S including the U.S Vice President Joe Biden. If the bilateral security agreement is not signed, and there are more and more debates within the U.S administration about different options we would probably see that the argument of those who are in favor of the zero option will gain more momentum,” he said.
But Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, an Afghan political analyst says Karzai does not believe in the possibility of the zero option. “He assumes that based on his 12 years’ experience in the palace the U.S is not going to abandon Afghanistan and go away no matter what. He thinks because zero option does not exist, he could force the U.S to agree to his demands,” said Rahmani.
Runoff election could complicate timetable
The very likely possibility of holding a runoff election if a clear winner does not emerge from the April 5th presidential vote could further complicate prospects for the BSA. If a clear winner emerges the BSA could be signed within weeks. But Lisa Curtis says if there is no clear winner the White House could push for a much smaller eventual force for Afghanistan.
“So if there is no winner right away. We probably have to wait a couple of more months to see who the new government would be. So If I had to look at the crystal ball and see how this plays out, It will take time and give the White House the reason to maintain a small footprint in Afghanistan.” And that is something Curtis says the White House might prefer for the long term. “So I think the problem here is that Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA actually fuels into Obama’s personal goals which are to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible,” she said.