Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in Washington for talks with the Obama administration on the gradual draw down of foreign troops from his country over the next two years. There are currently about 104,000 NATO and other outside troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans.
In a recent piece for CNN, I wrote:
“By summer of 2013, it is anticipated that the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will draw to a close. By the end of 2014, only a few thousand U.S. troops will be left, and they will mainly supply close air support to the Afghanistan army when it engages in combat. Whether the some 350,000-strong Afghanistan security forces are up to the challenge of fighting the Taliban and other insurgents is a matter of great controversy. American officers in Kabul insist that the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) now takes the lead in 80 percent of operations against the enemy, up from 50 percent just last summer. But a recent Pentagon review admitted that only one of 23 ANA brigades is capable of functioning on its own, without U.S. or ISAF help. In 2012, some 300 were dying every month in battles with the Taliban and other militant groups. The ANA has low rates of literacy (a third the rate of the general population), high rates of drug use, and high rates of desertion. It is also disproportionately drawn from the Tajik, Dari Persian-speaking minority. Only 2 percent of the troops hail from Kandahar and Helmand Provinces in the Pashtun south, the strongholds of the Taliban.”
Earlier arguments about whether the US would keep 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after December 31, 2014, or only 3,000 have abruptly been eclipsed by a White House staffer’s announcement that the “zero option” is on the table. That is, the US may leave entirely.
This threat is likely intended to convince Karzai to withdraw his objections to granting extraterritoriality (immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts) to the remaining US troops. It was the refusal of the Iraqi government to grant such immunity that led to the complete withdrawal of US troops from that country at the end of 2011.
In Iraq, PM Nouri al-Maliki would have had to get extraterritoriality passed through his parliament (which nowadays is up in revolt against him), and that would have been impossible. The Iraqi parliament is full of Shiite nationalists and Sunni nationalists who were dying to see foreign soldiers out of their country.
The Afghan parliament is even weaker than the Iraqi, and Karzai can probably make his own deal with Washington. But he can’t act just as he pleases.
Karzai’s opposition among hard line Muslim fundamentalists are painting him as a traitor for signing any agreement at all with the US on the post-combat American troop presence. Karzai wants to negotiate a settlement with them, which is probably not impossible, but they say American troops remaining in their country is a deal breaker with regard to negotiations.
Nor can the president afford to alienate too many MPs in his own, weak parliament, since some of them are still movers and shakers in the country.
Will Karzai fold on the immunity issue and grant extraterritoriality to US troops? Or will he risk the departure of the Americans (whom he has sometimes admitted he does not like very much).
I don’t doubt that in the absence of a deal on immunity from prosecution in local courts of US troops, the Obama administration would be perfectly willing to pull them all out. Obama is a Pacific Rim president and is annoyed by the distractions of the Middle East, which he does not think is very important compared to China, Japan, the Koreas and the Philippines.
I wrote at CNN:
” Ironically, the draw-down of Western forces may make it easier for warring Afghan factions to begin serious negotiations with one another over the shape of the future. The United States has reportedly given up on attempting to play a role in those talks, and is bequeathing the task of achieving a negotiated settlement to the Afghans themselves and to Pakistan. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have repeatedly said that the end of the foreign troop presence is a precondition for any serious talks. Perhaps light at the end of that tunnel will be enough to at least begin behind-the-scenes discussions. It is also possible, however, that the radicals will attempt to improve their eventual bargaining position by taking more territory from Karzai and his successor.