IF ORDINARY Afghans really mattered to their and America’s governments, Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama would be standing shoulder-to-shoulder to reassure them about their security once the bulk of American combat troops have left the country by the end of 2014. Instead, a squabble between the two is poisoning the atmosphere in Afghanistan, with potentially disastrous long-term consequences
The immediate cause of the row is last month’s bungled opening of a Taliban political office in Doha. It is not clear who is to blame for allowing the Taliban to grandstand by flying their own flag and claiming the office as the embassy of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. But Mr Karzai was quick to accuse America—unfairly—of sidelining his government in a peace process that is meant to be Afghan-led. He angrily suspended negotiations over the bilateral security agreement that is needed to keep a residual American force in Afghanistan after the combat troops have left. A video conference with Mr Obama failed to clear the air. Since then, an exasperated White House has hinted that the pace of the planned drawdown may be accelerated and that there is a real possibility of no troops at all being left behind after 2014—the “zero option”.
Both sides are taking up positions that risk damaging what should be their real objectives. From Afghanistan’s point of view, the bilateral pact with America and a related “status of forces agreement” with NATO are essential for stability, as they would define the role and legal standing of international troops after 2014. Afghan National Security Forces are now leading the fight against insurgents in all parts of the country, and they are acquitting themselves well. However, they still need assistance with logistics, air support, intelligence, medical evacuation and dealing with improvised explosive devices (see article). Denying Afghan soldiers this help would damage their morale, while encouraging the Taliban to believe that time is on their side. It does not mean that the Taliban will take over the country again—they are too small and ineffective for that. But they could re-establish a grip on large parts of the south and east of the country, give succour to al-Qaeda, and sow the seeds for a new civil war.
None of those outcomes is remotely in the West’s interests. Yet through a mixture of miscalculation and mutual frustration, it could happen. In Iraq failure to reach a similar security agreement led to the sudden and premature departure of all American forces.
The problem is that both Mr Karzai and Mr Obama are playing to their political bases. Most of Mr Obama’s supporters would be delighted if all American forces came home yesterday. Many Americans fail to appreciate the real—if dearly bought—progress that NATO has brought to Afghanistan and underestimate the damage that a resurgent Taliban would do.
Mr Karzai’s position is more complex. Although he appears not to want to flout the constitution by trying to run in the presidential election, due on April 5th, he is desperately looking for ways to preserve what he sees as his legacy, including securing his family’s interests and being able to stay safely in Afghanistan once he has left office. Critics fear that, having so far failed to find a successor, Mr Karzai may engineer a political crisis to provide an excuse for postponing the vote.
Mr Karzai should stop playing games. The November deadline for the security agreement is already too close. The talks must be restarted and Mr Karzai must be realistic about what America can promise. The date of the presidential election must also be kept. This week parliament passed an election law, a crucial step towards a transparent poll. Encouragingly, Mr Karzai has now signed it. But it is too soon to be confident about the law’s implementation. Foreign aid donors, who in 2012 pledged $16 billion over the following four years, should remind Mr Karzai that a fair election is essential both for his place in history and for their unstinting support.
Presidents behaving badly
As for Mr Obama, he should swiftly announce the size of the “training and enabling” force he intends to leave in Afghanistan after 2014. It need not be huge—no fewer than 12,000, informed generals reckon, but no more than 20,000, with NATO allies providing about a third of the troops. Forbearance and persistence now are surely burdens worth bearing in order to secure a fairly stable future Afghanistan: one that never again shelters terrorists bent on global jihad. ‘The Economist’