The Landing Zone | 5.15.12
By Alan W. Dowd

The president’s recent visit to Afghanistan to sign a long-term strategic partnership agreement (SPA) with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai elicited cheers from his supporters and jeers from his critics. While Left and Right engage in their usual sparring over style, it’s the substance of the agreement that deserves scrutiny.

1. The SPA calls on both sides to “initiate negotiations on a Bilateral Security Agreement. Negotiations should begin after the signing of this Strategic Partnership Agreement, with the goal of concluding within one year a Bilateral Security Agreement.”

Let’s hope those negotiations go better than the negotiations the United States and Iraq engaged in throughout 2011. The U.S.-Iraq negotiations, it pays to recall, were building toward a long-term bilateral security partnership. American and Iraqi military commanders counted on the agreement to secure a modest-sized force of around 20,000 U.S. troops to train and back up Iraq’s nascent army. But those negotiations collapsed, and Washington abruptly left Iraq to fend for itself.

2. The SPA commits Afghanistan to providing “access to and use of Afghan facilities through 2014…for the purposes of combating al Qaeda and its affiliates.” Given Pakistan’s instability and al Qaeda’s goals, this is important to U.S. national security.

Regarding al Qaeda, it was brought to light this month that bin Laden was working with his deputies, the Taliban high command and the Haqqani network on a plan for ousting Karzai and taking control of Afghanistan. Doubtless, those plans survived bin Laden’s passing, which means cross-border strikes against al Qaeda and its affiliates (who are in Pakistan) are key to America’s security—and Afghanistan’s viability.

3. Related, the SPA views “any external aggression against Afghanistan” with “grave concern”—and appropriately so. Elements within Pakistan’s military-security apparatus are supporting a brutal guerilla war against the Afghan government and the U.S. military.

Yet in this same document, the United States “pledges not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries”—countries that are harboring al Qaeda and its affiliates, countries that are countenancing aggression against Afghanistan, countries like Pakistan. It pays to recall that Pakistan is ground zero of America’s drone war precisely because its government is either unable or unwilling to target al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The SPA’s conflicting messages in this regard were highlighted by a nationwide address Karzai delivered just hours after signing the SPA and by Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s post-signing comments. Karzai emphasized that the SPA prohibits the U.S. from using Afghanistan to attack other countries, while Crocker countered that the SPA does not end the use of Afghanistan for conducting drone strikes in Pakistan.

4. The document states that “cooperation between Afghanistan and the United States is based on mutual respect and shared interests.”

Try telling that to the families of U.S., British and French troops who have been killed by their Afghan “allies.” There have been 18 attacks by uniformed Afghan troops on NATO forces this year, killing 11 allied troops; the most recent occurred last week. There were 45 such attacks, killing 70 allied troops, between 2007 and 2011. Given that NATO admits it’s only reporting incidents in which allied troops are killed, these numbers represent just a fraction of the problem.

5. The SPA calls on NATO member states “to sustain and improve Afghan security capabilities beyond 2014 by taking concrete measures to implement” previous security agreements.

That seems unlikely. After all, NATO nations are slashing their militaries. To be sure, they will send some military aid to Afghanistan, but one wonders how much the NATO alliance will have left to sustain, let alone improve, the security situation in Afghanistan.

6. Finally, the document states that the U.S. and Afghanistan “reaffirm” their commitment to “defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates.”

There are several problems with this part of the SPA. First, NATO plans to reduce Afghan troop strength from 352,000 to 230,000 after 2014—just as NATO’s on-the-ground commitment recedes. One wonders how a smaller Afghan force—which despite its many shortcomings, still provides a modicum of stability—can defeat “al Qaeda and its affiliates” with less international support.

Moreover, just how committed is Kabul to defeating “al Qaeda and its affiliates” if Kabul’s emissaries are talking to al Qaeda’s closest, oldest affiliate? That would be the Taliban.

Afghanistan became the world headquarters for al Qaeda because the Taliban welcomed bin Laden with open arms. Yet Karzai consistently describes the Taliban as his “brothers.” In fact, Karzai devoted part of his nationwide address to calling on his “brothers” in the Taliban to “join the peace process and strengthen the nation.”

Clearly, Karzai’s goal is to draw the Taliban away from the battlefield and into the political sphere. But the Taliban are not prodigal sons. They are ruthless killers, committed jihadists, people who oppose everything that has happened in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded on October 7, 2001. (One key objective of that invasion, it pays to recall, was to oust the Taliban.)

No matter what Karzai calls the Taliban, Mullah Omar and his henchmen have not changed their stripes. They turned Afghanistan into a medieval torture chamber, allowed al Qaeda to use their country as a terrorist campus and made 9/11 possible. In the years since they were toppled, their record has only gotten uglier: attacking girls’ schools with poison gas, murdering teachers and using children to plant IEDs.

It’s difficult to see why anyone would want to call them “brothers”—or how a free Afghanistan could survive their inclusion in the government.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.