The first is an agreement between Washington and Kabul that would allow US forces to operate effectively, without being subject to Afghan law. Ajai Shukla reports
Washington and Kabul appear to be close to crossing two major hurdles that stand in the way of a Bilateral Security Agreement that the United States needs for retaining a residual force in Afghanistan from 2015 onwards, after US and Nato-led forces largely withdraw from that country.
The first is an agreement between Washington and Kabul that would allow US forces to operate effectively, without being subject to Afghan law. This hurdle may have been crossed on Tuesday night when US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly agreed, in a telephone conversation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, that President Barack Obama would write him a letter acknowledging US "mistakes" that had "hurt Afghans", apparently referring to intrusive raids on Afghans' residences over the last 12 years.
In return, Kabul will permit US Special Forces to continue counterterrorism raids on Afghan homes "in exceptional circumstances", for example when US lives are at stake. Kabul has already accepted another US red line, which is granting Washington legal jurisdiction over US soldiers and civilian contractors operating in Afghanistan. That means US soldiers charged with violating Afghan rights or breaking Afghan law would be prosecuted in American, not Afghan, courts.
US law mandates this requirement. Failure to reach such an agreement with Baghdad had led to a full US pullout from Iraq.
For a beleaguered Kabul, a full western military pullout from Afghanistan, which was termed the "zero option", might decisively turn the tables in favour of the Taliban. A full pullout would also have jeopardised $4.1 billion in annual military aid that donors have pledged for the Afghan National Security Forces.
If negotiating the BSA has been difficult, another hurdle lies ahead. President Karzai has ruled that to come into being, the BSA draft must be passed by a Loya Jirga -- a gathering of notables under Afghan tradition -- which will convene in Kabul on Thursday and probably discuss the matter for several days before arriving at a conclusion.
If the Loya Jirga accepts the BSA, it would be the first time Afghanistan voluntarily accepts a foreign military presence. There is speculation that Karzai has convened the Loya Jirga in order to provide political cover for this deeply contentious decision. But uncertainty remains; the Loya Jirga has previously endorsed the Afghan president's decision, but the 3,000-odd delegates cannot disregard Afghanistan's vaunted love for independence, and the improbable legend that Afghans are raised on -- of having defeated three occupying superpowers (19th century Britain, 20th century Soviet Union, and 21st century America).
Notwithstanding this, most Afghans pragmatically realise that the fledgling ANSF would lose ground against the Taliban, were it not backed by a residual US force and by continued US logistical support. This would be especially so if a united Taliban were backed by Pakistani material, moral and direct military support.
Reminding Afghans of the deeply contentious nature of this argument, a car bomb on Saturday killed six Afghans outside the Kabul Polytechnic campus, where the Loya Jirga will convene. The same day the Taliban warned that anyone supporting the BSA would be committing a "historical crime". After fighting the US, Nato and the ANSF for years based on President Obama's declared pullout time line of 2014, the Taliban does not welcome the prospect of a residual US force remaining in Afghanistan indefinitely.
Washington has not yet put a figure on the strength of the residual force, but US government sources have indicated that it would comprise of 8,000 to 12,000 troops. Of these, an expected 3,000 to 4,000 would be contributed by Nato countries, which would start making troop commitments once Washington and Kabul finalise the BSA. The residual force would include Special Forces and units equipped with drones for counterterrorist strikes in Afghanistan and in the border areas of Pakistan.
President Karzai had negotiated hard for security guarantees for Afghanistan by the residual US and Nato force. But Washington is apprehensive about being dragged into a military confrontation with Pakistan, and so US negotiators have managed to satisfy Kabul with a less forceful assurance of Afghanistan's security.
The ANSF, which includes both army and police forces, already consists of almost 3,52,000 persons. Most military forces consist of light infantry and Special Forces units, with little heavy weaponry, logistical backup, medical resources or air support.