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US/Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement: “We’re done here”…

May 11, 2012

By Tim Foxley

SPA according to Word Cloud (“Taliban” not featured…)

Summary:  The US/Afghan Strategic Partnership doesn’t say anything particularly concrete and we shouldn’t have expected anything else…

In May 2005, George W Bush and Hamid Karzai signed the first US/Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement.

May 2005:

Bush and Karzai sign 2005 SPA

Pentagon officials say the agreement shows Afghanistan’s willingness to allow U.S. forces to continue using installations like the Bagram Air Field north of Kabul as a key logistical center.  But the joint declaration leaves two sensitive issues unspecified: the status of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the limits on their actions. Karzai reportedly made several demands during his private meeting with Bush the same day. They included Karzai’s desire for more control over U.S. forces in his country and for the return of Afghan detainees from U.S. custody.

On 1 May, President Barack Obama flew into the largest US military base in Afghanistan, Bagram, about 100km north of Kabul, to announce and sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement with President Hamid Karzai.  A nine-page top level document, representing the “tip of the iceberg” of the meetings, work and documentation associated with this agreement was published, along with a White House Fact Sheet.  Presumably this replaces the 2005 version.  The document is keen to stress continuity with the 2010 London and Kabul conferences and the 2011 Bonn conference.

The SPA affirms the common values and interests of the US and Afghanistan and then identifies key areas of cooperation under the following headings (ranked in word count order):

  • Advancing long-term security (984 words)
  • Social and economic development (807 words)
  • Protecting and sharing democratic values (241 words)
  • Implementing arrangements and mechanisms (218 words)
  • Reinforcing regional security and cooperation (203 words)
  • Strengthening Afghan institutions and governance (152 words)

Obama and Karzai sign 2012 SPA

The emphasis is very clearly on security and economic matters – other more nebulous (and perhaps frustrating) matters get shorter attention.  The text contains much obvious wording that should not come as a surprise – (“ strong commitment to protecting and promoting democratic values”, “central importance of the values and principles of the Afghan Constitution”, “…need to preserve the achievements of the past ten years”).  Al Qaeda get some mention, but the Taliban do not get mentioned once, indicating perhaps that the US President no longer wants to get bogged down with commitments in any direction regarding this particularly intractable aspect of Afghanistan’s security problems.

The phrasing of the document is very generic, allowing it to mean what ever a future American President wants it to mean (More troops/money, less troops/money, or no troops/money at all?)  I sense that this has been written through the “we’re done here” spectacles of President Obama and the “I’m fed up being told what to do” spectacles of Karzai.   In this joint document, the two Presidents clearly felt it necessary to spell out that no “permanent” US bases were planned – yet it would have been strange if the US and Afghan governments had announced the establishment of a permanent presence.  The statement was presumably intended to head off potential misgivings amongst the Afghan population, but also probably aimed at Iran and the Taliban, given both their historic and current sensitivities to this issue.

“…[the US] further reaffirms that it does not seek permanent military facilities in Afghanistan, or a presence that is a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors.”

But perhaps slightly more binding comes a pledge “not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries”, although I’m sure that drones do not need Afghan soil to be deployed – in fact they probably don’t need soil at all, with the array of sea and airborne platforms at the disposal of the Pentagon.

But this SPA is not all-embracing: some key issues had already been resolved separate to the SPA – the transfer of detention facilities and the “Afghanization” of Special Operations, and other issues have yet to be developed – the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).  The BSA is a critical issue, as it will address the future status of US military and civilian personnel based in Afghanistan.

On the subject of support for the ANSF – another key issue for the US and ISAF to be able to leave Afghanistan to the timetable of 2014 – the US makes what seems to be a pretty weak commitment.

“Beyond 2014, the United States shall seek funds, on a yearly basis, to support the training, equipping, advising, and sustaining of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world.”

This is a commitment only to seek funds (no mention that funding will actually be approved or provided) and it will do this on a yearly basis.  This does not look like a long-term gesture and one that can fall foul of US budgetary constraints and government priorities every step of the way.

Furthermore, rather than pledging to dive in and help out if Afghanistan is attacked, the US commits only to “regard with grave concern any external aggression against Afghanistan”, and to “hold consultations on an urgent basis”.  I’m sure you’d probably find this sort of language in Neville Chamberlain’s pre-September 1939 work

I found one revealing and unintentionally humorous statement.  In Part 6, “Strengthening Afghan Institutions and Governance”, comes this commitment:

“The Parties shall work cooperatively to eliminate “parallel structures,” including Provincial Reconstruction Teams and District Stabilization Teams consistent with the Inteqal framework.”

So that’s it – in the end, it tuns out that the PRTs were actually a counter-productive waste of time.  The word “eliminate” was used!  No “thanks for the great work”, just get rid of the things.  They have been a cause of complaint by Karzai (and many Afghans) for some years.  Analysts have criticised them for a long time although, at one point early on (maybe 2002 – 2005), they were seen as the way ahead for internal efforts to stabilise places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Seen in the best light, they were a useful development of some form of stabilising presence in parts of the country where there was no government at all.  In the worst light they took up men, money and resources by ISAF nations who didn’t want to get involved in anything slightly dangerous and created a big international regional footprints that got in the way of Afghan development.  In the end many (most?) became well-intentioned “self-licking lollipops” with uncoordinated agendas driven by individual nations keen to raise their flag to demonstrate commitment but overly controlled by national ministries and headquarters.


Iran and the Taliban have already denounced the SPA.  And, indeed, Hamid Karzai has also criticised it, in response to a recent NATO involvement in the accidental killing of Afghan civilians:

“The strategic pact sealed by U.S. President Barack Obama last week in Afghanistan is at risk of becoming “meaningless” if Afghans do not feel safe, President Hamid Karzai said on Monday, referring to recent civilian casualties inflicted by NATO.”

The SPA doesn’t say that much that is concrete and is phrased to allow it to mean more or less whatever the US wants it to mean for the future.  The negotiating process for this document was drawn out – it was expected to have been signed in August/September 2011 – because many of the issues were controversial (detentions, prisoners, special forces operations, collateral damage, status of US troops).  A couple of years ago, these issues would have been “show-stoppers”, but my sense is that the US has found it easier to sign up to the document this year because of the growing unpopularity of the war, fuelled by the bad news stories from the first part of 2012 – Koran burning, massacre of Afghan civilians, poor behaviour of US soldiers, etc.

“We’re done here”, indeed.

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