A Security Agreement with Afghanistan?

A loya jirga, an assembly of 3,000 or so Afghan leaders, is currently reviewing a draft bilateral security agreement that would allow U.S. and other foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan until 2024. Even if it passes with few substantive changes, the agreement is unlikely to please anyone.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he will not sign it, and the few remaining hawks in the United States will point to some military leaders’ call for a much larger force to remain for a generation or more, and accuse President Obama of fecklessness. 

Most Americans, however, are likely to have the opposite reaction: a force of 8,000 is too large, and ten years is too long. A senior administration official’s assertion to the New York Times that “there is no scenario in which those forces would stay in Afghanistan until anywhere near 2024,” isn’t likely to be very reassuring. We’ve heard before that open-ended missions wouldn’t be, or that U.S. troops would eventually come home.  

The president’s supporters, including Secretary of State John Kerry, characterize the agreement as an acceptable compromise that ensures legal protections for Americans stationed in Afghanistan, while also granting the United States access for continued counterterrorism operations, including raids in Afghan homes, said to be one of the last sticking points of the negotiations.

The details must still be worked out, and it is possible that the loya jirga will alter the agreement, or vote it down. If the legal protections for American citizens are stripped out, or if there is no agreement, then the U.S. military mission should be withdrawn entirely from Afghanistan. As in the case in Iraq, when a democratically elected government refused the Obama administration’s reasonable request to shield U.S. troops from the vagaries of Iraqi justice, no deal should mean no troops. This story is far from over, and I will be watching as more details emerge. 

This much is clear, however: The enthusiasm for quixotic nation-building crusades that swept through Washington a few years ago has been replaced by a welcome skepticism. Senior military officers dressed it up with a fancy name–COIN–but the public never bought what they were selling. Now even some scholars within the military establishment are pushing back. A force of 100,000 wasn’t nearly large enough to accomplish a nation-building mission, and, the Obama administration no longer even pretends that that is the true object. A mere 8,000 foreign troops will have trouble enough training an Afghan army beset by illiteracy, absenteeism, and corruption. Any pretense that the few U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan after 2014 can write Afghan legal codes, build a functioning political system, put the country on the road to economic self-sufficiency, and protect the rights of women and religious and ethnic minorities is out the window. 

But the critical constraint on any lingering nation-building fantasies is the American people who want this nation’s longest war to be over. They should be forgiven for believing that it would be by now, given that President Obama intoned repeatedly during last year’s campaign that he was committed to ending it.

He hasn’t yet.