From January 8-12, 2013, President Hamid Karzai’s visited Washington, DC to discuss relations between the United States and Afghanistan beyond 2014, in a trip many Afghans believed would be crucial for determining the country’s future.
At a White House press conference on Friday January 11, Karzai repeated claims about the international community’s culpability for widespread corruption in Afghanistan, while also acknowledging corruption in the Afghan government.
U.S. President Barak Obama did not expressly disagree with Karzai’s claims, but did place particular emphasis on the problem of Afghan government corruption. Washington would channel financial aid through the Afghan government only if a system of good governance and anti-corruption mechanisms were in place, Obama said.
Analysis on the course and outcome of Karzai’s visit differed between Afghan and Western media. For instance, in Afghanistan, Azadi Radio’s coverage emphasized the blame placed by Karzai on the international community in general, and the United States in particular, for increased corruption in the country, and for violations of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty.
Meanwhile, CNN claimed that Karzai and his allies feared U.S. abandonment of the country, and the prospect that the next elected Afghan government would prosecute Karzai and members of his administration for corruption.
While many inside and outside the country believe that the 2014 presidential election will be hugely important in determining Afghanistan’s future, neither president mentioned the event at the January 11 press conference. Some Afghan analysts speculate that Washington will thwart real democratization in Afghanistan in the interest of establishing a government that will be a good partner and implement U.S. government objectives in the region.
Predictably, western news agencies focused on the impending withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. U.S. coverage included debates on withdrawal and negotiations over the numbers of troops that would remain, with recommendations ranging from 3,000 to 9,000.
CNN reported that while Americans want an end to the war in Afghanistan, the White House is planning to maintain troops in the country with exact numbers dependant on the nature of the U.S. mission and the pending agreement between the two countries.
In a program on Afghanistan’s Tolo TV, opposition party member Abdullah Abdullah argued that the number of international troops remaining in the country should be determined by the need to build the capacity of Afghan forces. However, he claimed, he claimed that the Afghan government is unable to precisely identify the number of troops required to meet this goal.
In fact, Karzai did not provide a clear answer on this issue at the White House press conference saying, “Numbers are not going to make a difference to the situation in Afghanistan. It is the broader relationship that will make a difference to Afghanistan and beyond in the region.”
The New Yorker analyzed this statement with skepticism, wondering whether Karzai’s use of the phrase “the broader relationship” indicated that “what he meant was money.” The White House also has not provided a clear message on the number of required troops. Obama stated that the U.S. government had yet to decide on the specific number of U.S. forces that would remain in Afghanistan, saying it would depend on what was required for anti-terrorism and force capacity building beyond 2014.
Before and during Karzai’s visit, Washington intimated in the media that Kabul would have to agree to judicial immunity for U.S personnel in order for troops to remain in the country after 2014. During the Washington trip, President Karzai agreed to this provision, but excluded cases in which Afghan sovereignty and Afghan laws have been violated. In return, Washington agreed to transfer detainees to Afghan custody.
Already 70 percent of the transition process has taken place. Afghan national forces now lead with international troops taking a supportive role. While this power transfer has been welcomed by Kabul, the Afghan National Assembly has expressed its hope for a long-term commitment of military support from the United States and its international allies to help maintain stability and security in Afghanistan.
Inside Afghanistan, the immediate fear is that if international forces leave, the country may again become a playground for neighboring states. The Afghan Paper reports that Iran, Pakistan and Russia have opposed both the maintenance of a U.S. military base in Afghanistan and the security agreement between the two countries.
If international forces withdraw entirely, some Afghan citizens believe the country may collapse into civil war as it did in 1992. The best way to prevent this, some believe, is for the United States to remain a strong ally, providing technical, financial and capacity support to Afghan forces.
At the same time, many Afghans are tired of an on-going insurgency whose existence is fueled by the presence of international forces, and would welcome a complete troop withdrawal. Since international forces came to Afghanistan over 11 years ago, thousands of Afghans have been maimed, orphaned, or have died in this unpopular war against terrorism.
Although the Afghan National Security forces have improved greatly and now number 187,000, they face daunting challenges. They require strong air defense, intelligence, medivac, and logistical assets and maintenance. Whether and when Afghan forces will be able to protect the country’s borders and sustain security is a question that will be answered only with the passage of time.
According to Tolo News, many Afghan district governors fear that the withdrawal of international forces will also lead to the increased presence of drug traffickers, Taliban and other insurgents. With this in mind, government negotiations with the Taliban have increased in the last few months with Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan and Pakistan released as a gesture of goodwill.
Both the Afghan and U.S. presidents believe security should be based on political processes and agree that reconciliation efforts should advance. The Taliban claims it will not negotiate until international forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, and refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the current Afghan government and constitution.
Anticipating the 2014 troop withdrawal and agitated by Afghan media propaganda about a coming civil war, many Afghans are in flight mode. Some have begun selling their properties and seeking asylum in other countries. Many of these individuals are educated professionals meaning that the human resources necessary to run the country are dwindling. Departing Afghans say they fear that the withdrawal of international forces will dry up development and investment resources and lead to increased unemployment.
Although Obama has emphasized to Americans that the long war in Afghanistan is coming to a “responsible” end, all signs seem to indicate the United States will maintain an important presence in the country for some time to come.
* Mahboobullah Iltaf is a writer in Kabul.