The deadline for an agreement which will shape the future of Afghanistan is due to pass tomorrow with negotiations at a stalemate amid warnings from Washington that a failure to find a solution will have "catastrophic" consequences.
Attacks in the capital Kabul over the weekend, in which three Nato servicemen were killed in a suicide bombing on the Jallalabad Road and missiles struck the American embassy, were grim reminders of the violence which has continued 12 years after the fall of the Taliban regime. There is widespread consensus that the situation will worsen unless a deal is signed allowing a limited number of US and Western forces, including British, to remain after the combat mission officially finishes at the end of the year to provide support for the country’s fledgling forces.
President Hamid Karzai, however, has so far refused to ratify the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) which will enable this to happen, introducing a series of shifting pre-conditions as well as insisting that nothing should be signed until the country’s presidential elections, which are due in April.
The Afghan leader's stance has bewildered and infuriated the Western alliance, which had been spending $70bn a year in providing military and civilian support. There is a feeling that an agreement will, at some stage, be signed, but Mr Karzai’s brinkmanship and delay is creating huge problems for future planning.
Some, such as US President Barack Obama's national security observer, Susan Rice, had laid out a "zero option" in which Nato forces would have pulled out completely in December 2013; a scenario in which Afghan army and police, hastily assembled to the projected strength of 352,000, would be left struggling to cope with an insurgency which, fed and watered in Pakistan, will undoubtedly launch a sustained offensive.
Furthermore, in the absence of an agreement, much of the $10bn a year the international community has pledged to support Afghanistan is going to be cut back and major aid projects shut down. A leaked report at the weekend in Washington, the National Intelligence Estimate, which collates information from America's 16 intelligence agencies, presents a downbeat picture of Afghanistan’s future outlook. The lack of a security pact would, the document stresses, rapidly escalate the descent into chaos with the gains made in the 12-year war dissipated.
Such is the worry that Nato began its own negotiations in Kabul just before Christmas. The talks were meant to pave the way for some troops of International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), including the British, who provide the second biggest foreign contingent, to stay behind. In reality, however, this will depend on the BSA being signed between the Afghans and the Americans.
Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said: "If we were to choose a more drastic option in Afghanistan [pulling out completely] it takes a certain amount of time… And that I don’t think is well understood by President Karzai."
The extent of the UK's commitment post-2014 is yet to be decided. The Cameron-Clegg Government wants to wash its hands of a war that brings no electoral benefits. The military, on the other hand, would like a more robust presence, pointing out that the sacrifice made in "blood and treasure" in the longest overseas campaign since the Second World War should not be wasted (Captain Richard Holloway, of the Royal Engineers, last week became the 447th serviceman to be killed since 2001). They worry that allowing the insurgency back in will lead to plotting of terrorist attacks in British cities.
There are now just four UK bases left outside the vast Camp Bastion. However the 7th Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier James Woodham, will have a vital role backing up Afghan forces in safeguarding the April elections.
After the end of next year the British contribution is likely to consist of special forces, intelligence and, possibly, air support; the only tangible development for the future so far has been the setting up of an officers' training school in Kabul, referred to as "Sandhurst in the Sands". However, it is highly unlikely that trainers from the UK will stay on there if an agreement is not signed. A senior British diplomat, with extensive experience of Afghanistan, listed the reasons for Western exasperation with Mr Karzai. The Afghan President called a Loya Jirga, a public meeting of regional leaders and tribal elders, to decide on the deal and then ignored their recommendation that it should be signed.
The President's stipulation that nothing can be signed until the election raises the prospect of negotiations having to start again with a new incumbent as, under the constitution, he cannot stand for a third term. Mr Karzai stated that the agreement should take place only after a peace process is under way with the Taliban, something his ministers say is going nowhere. He had repeatedly declared his faith in the country's military but ignored commanders over the issue.
Afghan senior officers have increasingly felt they have to speak out openly. Brigadier General Abdul Raziq, in charge of the Afghan army’s 4th Brigade, said: "Karzai is playing a dangerous game, it's not good for the Afghan people and it’s not good for him. The people are afraid what might happen if we don’t sign. We saw what happened in Iraq after the West left, the terrorists came back."
There is, however, criticism that the West has been sending mixed messages to the Afghan President on the timeline. General Martin Dempsey, the head of the US military, had declared that the 31 December deadline was imperative for signing the deal. "What was very clear is that over the course of an exhausting negotiation a text was agreed upon; the text was considered to be closed and presented to the Loya Jirga. It's not our intention to reopen the text and to renegotiate that which had already been discussed," he said.
But US defence secretary Leon Panetta has hinted there may be a leeway of a few more weeks. And General Joseph Dunford, the commander of Isaf, cautioned:"Anyone who reinforces this idea of December 2014 [end of combat mission] as being Y2K or a cliff the Afghan people are going to fall off is actually being unhelpful. An option is something you plan against and we’re not planning against the zero option."
Meanwhile, the talk of a complete Western withdrawal, he said, was greatly damaging to the morale of the Afghan forces as they face a very real continued threat.
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