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Thankless Negotiations With Afghan Allies

Afghan president Hamid Karzai's order to his forces to wrest control of Bagram prison from the United States highlights Afghans' growing testiness. It comes just as talks begin with their American allies on new security arrangements to govern a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Those negotiations were already expected to be highly contentious, and the conflict over the prison only deepens Afghan suspicions of U.S. intentions.

Karzai is furious at the U.S. military's refusal to honor a hand-over agreement signed last March that would turn over to Afghan authorities the detainees at the prison whom Afghan courts have acquitted of any crime. This seeming indifference to Afghan sovereignty seems certain to stiffen Karzai's resistance to a core U.S. demand in the negotiations on a residual troop presence: a status-of-forces-agreement that guarantees immunity from Afghan prosecution to U.S. military personnel accused of crimes.

By inauspicious coincidence, last week Afghan villagers testified via videolink in the military trial of army sergeant Robert Bales, charged with wanton murder early this year of 16 Afghan civilians -- the kind of war crime that many Afghans are convinced U.S. military courts will not properly punish. Indeed, in-depth polling unveiled last week finds that Afghans have more fear of "encountering international forces" than of the dangers of Taliban attacks if they travel around the country, dare to run for office, or just vote.

Seventy-eight percent of the 6,290 respondents in the latest 272-page Asia Foundation annual survey of Afghan public attitudes told in-person interviewers that they fear encounters with the foreign troops. Among Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, the fearful number 83 percent, and in the militarily contested southern provinces, including Kandahar, they are 89 percent of those surveyed.

Karzai frequently gives voice to such public sentiments in his demands to rein in the foreign forces that are supposed to be buttressing his government's authority. They also suggest why few Afghans muster much outrage about the upsurge in deadly attacks on Western troops by soldiers in the Afghan national army, attributed by a NATO report in part to "rude and vulgar" foreign behavior toward their ostensible Afghan allies.

To be sure, nearly half of Afghans also say they'd be fearful of encounters with Afghan army officers too. Still, 87 percent believe the growing army is helping to improve security in the country, and 82 percent optimistically imagine that it is "professional and well trained." The survey did not ask Afghans about the army's high attrition rates, but 65 percent did acknowledge that the army "needs the support of foreign troops and cannot operate by itself."

Four in ten Pashtuns admit to some or even a lot of sympathy with the Taliban insurgency; nationally, 30 percent of Afghan respondents do. This represents a decline over the past four years, from 56 percent in 2009, and the majority of Afghans who now disavow any sympathy at all for the armed opposition primarily cite its "killing innocent people." (The minority overwhelmingly justifies its lingering sympathies "because the armed opposition groups are Afghans" or "Muslims.")

Across the spectrum, 81 percent of Afghans surveyed support the Karzai government's efforts to "reconcile" with the insurgents, regardless of the motivations they impute to the violent resistance. The most widely volunteered reasons that respondents believe motivate Taliban combatants are the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan (21 percent) or their desire to gain power (16 percent). Just five percent attribute the insurgency to the corruption in the government, though fully a third of Afghans cite that corruption as the government's biggest failing.

While the foreign military presence touches many raw nerves, Afghans appear to recognize the international community's contribution to the improvements that large majorities see in education, road construction, water supply, and health care. They credit foreign donors far more than the government for humanitarian aid, and attribute successful projects in their provinces in particular to aid from the United States (35 percent), Germany, or Japan (nine percent each).

Unsurprisingly, Afghans want the aid spigot from abroad to stay open. It is the military relationship they find vexing, and that is now up for negotiation -- negotiations that such survey research might usefully inform. Although immunity is a standard feature of status-of-forces agreements in other countries where U.S. forces are based (including Germany and Japan), it seems likely to be a sticking point for Afghans. They note Iraq's adamant refusal last year to accept such an immunity agreement, which finally disabused the Pentagon of illusions it could keep a vestigial force there indefinitely.

Of course, Afghanistan still faces a stubbornly entrenched insurgency, and so long as there is no political accommodation among Afghans, the government will still likely need foreign back-up to hold the Taliban at bay. The prospect of a vestigial but lethal continuing U.S. military presence can, however, be a compelling incentive for the Taliban to take the path of a negotiated settlement -- as the only way to get all American troops out of the country.

Now that Americans have retained President Obama for another term, his administration needs adroitly to engage in multiple layers of Afghan negotiations -- directly with Karzai over the U.S. military presence if there is no Taliban deal, with neighboring countries including Pakistan and Iran, and with the insurgencies. The latter could best be facilitated by the United Nations. Ironically, the bilateral negotiations with America's allies in Kabul could prove the most thankless.