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Far Apart on Bilateral Strategic Agreement, Congress Should Make Politics, Economy Center of Afghanistan Partnership

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Ahead of last Saturday's formal discussion between the United States and Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai signaled his willingness to consider a Pentagon proposal to maintain the nine U.S. bases in his country after 2014. President Karzai's statement, just two months after accusing the U.S. military of colluding with the Taliban-led insurgency, appears to highlight movement towards the signing of the Bilateral Strategic Agreement (BSA) and the deepening of the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan. But there is reason to doubt that a meaningful partnership is coming. Because the Americans and Afghans are likely still far apart on critical aspects of the BSA, such a military-first partnership would do little to support the Afghan political and economic basis for stability during the transition. More importantly, Congress' plummeting interest in spending generally, and in Afghanistan specifically, threatens to scuttle any ongoing relationship between the two countries.

The negotiations over the BSA are still in their infancy. The Pentagon's recommendation of nine bases and President Karzai's contemplation of that number are simply starting points in a greater debate; the Pentagon wanted to know how large a presence the Afghans will tolerate. President Karzai's remarks are a test balloon for national and regional reactions. Waheed Wafa of Kabul University surmises that Karzai is interested in assessing the appetite for continued Western presence among Afghan society and Iranian and Pakistani leaders. While nine bases would probably be a large presence for many to stomach on both sides, such a bargaining position leaves considerable wiggle room for a potentially amenable middle ground. Whatever numbers the two sides might float at this point, discussion of bases and troop numbers becomes merely rhetorical unless two thorny issues, namely U.S. commitment to side with Afghanistan in a future confrontation with Pakistan and legal immunity for U.S. troops, are dealt with.

Will a BSA that keeps U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 serve anyone's interests? While President Karzai insisted that any BSA needs to be tied to a U.S. agreement to heightened resolve to support Afghanistan's political and economic transitions, leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan for counterterror operations will work against those projects. Negotiations should deal with partnership and cooperation on improving governance and access to services, strengthening the internal economy and promoting regional stability and trade. Only after the extent of American commitment to these challenges is defined should the issue of future troop levels be discussed. Otherwise, the United States again risks contributing the men and women of the military, as well as significant financial resources, without any clear political strategy. As much as this would hurt the United States, the impact of a prolonged military-first strategy would be even more devastating for Afghan society.

The Pentagon might want to know what sort of presence the Afghans will accept, but they need to check with the civilian leaders who write their checks too. Congressional lawmakers are not interested in investing either that many men or that much money in any U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Their willingness to continue providing for so many bases going forward will only diminish. If, as reported, it would take 6,000 U.S. troops to maintain two large bases in Kabul and Bagram, operating nine bases of undisclosed sizes would require considerable manpower. The Pentagon continues to fail to accurately budget for this conflict, making it impossible to precisely predict the unwieldy expenses for a proposed long-term military commitment. Expecting Congress to provide more funding for State Department and USAID initiatives in Afghanistan, given its unrelenting reluctance to shift away from the military to provide these agencies with essential funding and desire to close the book on the war, is unrealistic.

Military and political discussions of troop levels and political and economic commitments aside, a long-term relationship with Afghanistan sits on the chopping block unless Congress has a change of heart. With the Pentagon and President Karzai's opening propositions far afield of congressional will to spend on Afghanistan, it is unlikely that a BSA, or any other framework, will take hold and continue to receive annual funding. It is critical that Congress be convinced that investing in Afghanistan's political and economic future is not only in U.S. interests but can be done with significantly fewer resources than ongoing military operations.