Baghdad, not Kabul, is key

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 29, 2013

US needed a deal with Iraq more than it does with Afghanistan

Rashmee Roshan Lall

Two years ago, the Onion, a satirical website which describes itself as “America’s finest news source”, had its customary way with the last US troops’ covert exit from Iraq. It was a story made for satire. The last convoy of 500 soldiers had driven into Kuwait under cover of darkness and without telling a soul.

Secrecy had been so strict that interpreters pretended to the Americans’ Iraqi partners, including the Iraqi soldiers they trained and mentored, that it was business as usual. It was an unduly surreptitious, even ignominious end to a war that lasted nearly nine years, claimed 4,500 American lives and soaked up one trillion dollars. The Onion was not the only one that saw it as a sneaky exit.

Today, there is a good reason to remember December 2011. It risks being repeated in December 2014, when US combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan.

Washington think-tanks and security analysts are obsessing over the aftermath of America’s longest war. They argue that the US badly needs a bilateral security agreement with Afghanistan, or else, as the Onion once joked about Iraq, it might finish “a very strong second…to the insurgents”.

Like Iraq, Afghanistan seems to be evolving into a cautionary tale about the US intervention and sudden exit, with all the implied risks of the newly ‘liberated’ country slipping into a civil war afterwards and posing a security threat regionally and beyond. But is this really the case?

As in Iraq, Afghanistan’s mercurial and impassioned President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign the agreement, at least until after presidential elections in April. As in Iraq, that agreement is the key.

It would allow an undetermined number (possibly 10,000) American and Nato soldiers to stay on in training and advisory roles after the last combat troops depart. In Iraq, the deal was painfully on-off, eventually failing apart over legal immunity for American forces, 10 weeks before they tiptoed out.

To many, the flip-flop in Afghanistan, which changes from month to month, is reminiscent of Iraq. In October, US secretary of state John Kerry travelled to Kabul to finalise the details of a deal that seemed increasingly solid.

In November, Karzai’s specially convened Loya Jirga (grand assembly) endorsed the draft but the Afghan president postponed his signature and the US threatened the ‘zero option’ — no troops, just a routine Marine Security Guard detachment at its Kabul embassy.

In December, US special representative for Afghanistan James Dobbins told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that America was “nowhere near a decision that would involve our departing Afghanistan altogether… (because) we haven’t at this point set a date beyond which we’re no longer prepared to wait.”

Soon enough, his patience was echoed by White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest, who indicated the Obama administration wanted to soften its demand the security pact be signed by year-end. It wouldn’t be a “huge problem… if they sign it on January 10” instead, he said.

Will they? Like Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, President Karzai has publicly seemed to delight in being both changeable and vengeful about long-term American support. But there are key differences. The Iraqi prime minister was once a cossetted political exile in Syria and Iran. Karzai, if he inclines to any country in Afghanistan’s near-abroad, is more partial to India.

This would, in itself, suggest a propensity to continue with some American presence in order to keep both Pakistan and Iran at arm’s length.

There are other reasons to suppose Karzai may be bluffing every time he threatens to nix agreement with the US.

In a recent interview to Le Monde, he railed at Washington’s bullying behaviour, bizarrely comparing it to that of a colonial power because it threatens to loosen ties with Afghanistan. “(The US says) we won’t pay salaries, we’ll drive you into a civil war. These are threats,” he said angrily.

To some, this sounds like the grandstanding fulminations of a leader conscious he is out of sync with his people’s opinion as represented by the Loya Jirga. Presidential candidate and longtime Karzai opponent Abdullah Abdullah has already expressed the fears of many Afghans, using words later repeated by Dobbins, that “the price would be paid by the people of Afghanistan” if Karzai’s bluster “backfires” and Americans adopt the zero option.

He might have a point. As Carl Levin, the Democrat chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently wrote to US President Barack Obama, Karzai has a “mistaken belief that the United States needs Afghanistan more than Afghanistan needs the United States.”

Post-occupation Afghanistan is arguably much less significant for the US than post-occupation Iraq, which has massive oil reserves and sits smack in the middle of a region US defence secretary Chuck Hagel recently described as “dangerous, combustible and unstable.”

Iraq was meant to be the point from which America would re-make West Asia, hubristically building its largest embassy ever in Baghdad (in fact the largest embassy of any country anywhere) as a symbol of American might.

Come December 2014, even if the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, it could not automatically be said to presage another 9/11-style spectacular attack because al Qaeda has changed and so has America’s security infrastructure.

In fact, it is in Iraq’s western desert, near the Syrian border, that al Qaeda has declared the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the first supposed stirrings of a Caliphate that would transcend modern State borders. The US needed a deal with Iraq more than it does with Afghanistan.

Rashmee Roshan Lall is a senior journalist based in the Americas. From September 2011, she spent a year in Afghanistan

The views expressed by the author are personal