Back in June 2011, with an eye toward his re-election campaign, President Obama announced a drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan, saying "our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support." While he never actually used the word "withdrawal" in his speech, he made it clear that, "By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security."
At that time, the only hint of what Obama meant by making Afghans "responsible for their own security," could be found in his statement of US objectives: "to refocus on al-Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country."
Today, the United States has ensconced such language in a security agreement, which Washington is keen for Afghanistan to sign by the end of 2013. It is not clear, however, that the Afghan government will play along.
Karzai Throws a Wrench Into the Works
Despite being snubbed by Iraq's government two years ago over a "Status of Forces" Agreement, the United States has had high hopes for signing a similar agreement with Afghanistan. Unfortunately for Secretary of State John Kerry, Afghanistan's lame-duck President Hamid Karzai has unexpectedly balked at the last minute at signing the agreement. Karzai had led the United States to believe he would sign the pact and even organized a "Loya Jirga” - a traditional assembly of 2,500 tribal elders, officials, and others - to debate the details of the deal. Despite the Loya Jirga's attendees approving it, Karzai has now resorted to delaying tactics, announcing to everyone's surprise that his successor in next April's presidential elections might be the one to sign the deal.
It appears that for once in this ongoing diplomatic game, Karzai has the upper hand. The United States just announced that the December 31deadline to sign the deal was not in fact set in stone. This comes after weeks of insisting that a deal had to be signed by year's end for the Defense Department to plan properly for 2014 troop levels.
And NATO, whose soldiers serve alongside US forces in Afghanistan, is also desperate for a deal. Bizarrely, one NATO official announced that it would accept any Afghan official's signature on the agreement, indicating that the existence of the deal is more important for Western governments than whether it is legally binding. Presumably, it would aid in selling the unpopular war at home if governments can point to a document agreed on by "Afghans” that continues the war, but limits its scope.
"Occupation-Lite": The Devil Is in the Details
The Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement, as it is officially called, specifies the scope of foreign troops' activity in Afghanistan for the next decade and follows from an earlier pact signed in 2012 called the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement, which laid out the joint political interests of both governments.
In essence, this new deal would cement a continuing role for thousands of US troops in Afghanistan (the document covers the next 10 years) while pronouncing the 12-year-long occupation officially over. If that sounds like a game of semantics to justify a reduced version of the status quo, "occupation-lite," it is exactly that.
If Karzai signs the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), as it is more commonly referred to, the United States will reduce the current number of 47,000 US and 24,000 NATO troops down to about 8,000 to 12,000 troops, two-thirds of which would consist of US military. It should be noted that the agreement does not actually specify the number of troops and whether they would remain through 2024 - it simply outlines the scope of actions by any US and NATO troops over the 10-year period that the agreement is in effect. But actual troop numbers can be gleaned from news reports.
These remaining forces would operate from current US military bases, ostensibly to help train the Afghan National Army, while a smaller elite group of Special Operations Forces would continue to conduct controversial raids to track, capture and kill militants the US deems affiliated with al-Qaeda or simply dangerous to US interests.
The legal immunity that US forces can enjoy while deployed to Afghanistan has been a public sticking point over signing the deal. Article 13 of the BSA requires that "the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over [United States forces] in respect of any criminal or civil offenses committed in the territory of Afghanistan."
This is a sensitive issue given the cruel and even criminal behavior of some US troops during the 12-year-long occupation. In just the last few years, US troops have burned Korans, inciting riots that killed dozens, and urinated on the corpse of a dead Taliban soldier. Most recently, Staff Sargent Robert Bales was convicted of a fatal shooting spree that left 16 unarmed civilians dead.
But Secretary Kerry insists that legal immunity for US troops is non-negotiable. In an interview with NPR, he laid out the US' terms, saying, "Needless to say, we are adamant [that the jurisdiction for US troops] has to be the United States of America. That's the way it is everywhere else in the world." He went further, threatening to exercise the so-called "zero option" of pulling out all troops, saying, "And they [the Afghans] have a choice: Either that's the way it is or there won't be any forces there of any kind."
Another major part of the US's global "War on Terror," has been the freedom that Special Operations Forces have enjoyed in conducting raids on Afghan homes in the middle of the night and detaining Afghan civilians. The night raids are incredibly controversial, provoking the ire of Afghan civilians and politicians alike. A report by Open Society Foundations concluded that the raids, "continue to provoke popular and political blowback that risks seriously undermining relations with the Afghan government." Just this November, in the midst of negotiations with the US, Karzai accused Americans of killing civilians during one such night raid.
An earlier version of the BSA included a brief but crucial section on the detention of Afghans by the United States, with the US making "their commitments to placing Afghan detainees under the sovereignty and control of Afghanistan." The Karzai government, however, insisted on strengthening the language further to state that, "No detention or arrest shall be carried out by the United States forces. The United States forces shall not search any homes or other real estate properties." As of this writing, it appears as though the United States and Afghanistan have not been able to come to agreement over the US' ability to conduct night raids.
The Games Karzai Plays
Karzai has already called the United States' bluff on the December 31deadline to sign the deal, daring Kerry to pull all troops out, saying, "I don't think America is thinking of the zero option; it’s brinkmanship they play with us, and even if they did [pull out], then come what may."
The war of words between Karzai and Kerry is obscuring the power dynamics between both nations. While Karzai may appear to be standing up to US imperial interests, the reality is far more complicated. After all, Karzai owes his power and position to the United States more so than to any other entity. Given the resurgence of the Taliban, the poor state of the Afghan National Army, the fractious nature of his Parliament, and the extreme poverty, corruption and violence plaguing his nation, he relies on outside help to maintain his power.
What then is the meaning of his reluctance to sign an agreement with the United States? One reason is that Karzai appears to be using his leverage over the United States to curry favor with regional powers in the last few months of his tenure, perhaps in search of new benefactors. The Afghan President met with Iran's newly elected leader, Hassan Rouhani, to discuss a "pact of friendship and cooperation." Iran, whose historically icy relations with the United States may be warming only slightly, has long been concerned about the presence of US troops so close to its border.
Karzai has also met with the Indian government to finalize a deal to purchase military equipment (including weapons), in direct defiance of the United States. India has long backed the central Afghan government with billions of dollars in training and aid to balance its rival Pakistan's influence over the Taliban. Karzai is hoping that India's support now translates into military aid.
But Karzai is playing both sides of the subcontinent's proxy war, having met with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to make headway on peace talks with the Taliban. One of the obstacles that Karzai has publicly raised over signing the BSA deal is his stated desire to see the United States and Pakistan lead public negotiations with the Taliban, rather than conduct secret talks, which have dragged on for years and produced no results. Karzai told the press, "Secret talks won't help. United States and Pakistan have enough influence over the Taliban to relaunch the peace process." Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatus has long been associated with the Taliban. When the Taliban first entered Afghanistan, the majority of their troops emerged from within Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan and were known to be trained by Pakistan's intelligence service.
Ordinary Afghans Want an End to US Occupation
In addition to the diplomatic chess he is playing, the other reason why Karzai has appeared increasingly hostile to his American benefactors is the extreme unpopularity of the US occupation among the general Afghan public. On December 10, International Human Rights Day, hundreds of Afghans held a rally to commemorate civilian victims of war. In a country where organizing public demonstrations is extremely risky, protesters criticized both Afghan perpetrators, and United States and NATO forces. Waida Ahmad, a spokesperson for the Social Association of Afghan Justice Seekers, which organized the rally, told a local newspaper, "American forces have bombed the homes of Afghans, and they have killed civilians during the 12-years-old war in Afghanistan."
Earlier this year, on October 7 - the 12thanniversary of the US war in Afghanistan - the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), with whom I have worked closely for over a decade, issued a statement entitled "Independence, the first condition for the prosperity of our homeland and people." The statement is accompanied by a gruesome image of dead Afghan children killed in a US strike, sporting the slogan, "Down with the US Occupation." RAWA, the oldest women's political organization in Afghanistan, doesn't hold back, saying:
The US government and its allies promised our people democracy, but imposed upon them the most undemocratic, corrupt, and mafia government of our history; they spoke of 'war on terror' but brought the murderers and terrorists of the Northern Alliance, gun-lords and drug kingpins to power, and have now extended their hands in friendship to the Taliban; the US used human rights and women’s rights as an excuse, but Afghanistan still faces the worse kinds of human rights violations and horrifying catastrophes against its women; they promised our people liberation and freedom, but practically turned our country into a narco-state and the center of their longest-running criminal war.
Members of RAWA support poor Afghans struggling to survive between the pressures of the US occupation and the corrupt Afghan government. In an email interview, I asked RAWA how ordinary Afghans feel about the presence of US troops. A spokesperson replied that there is "a very wide and systematic propaganda campaign by the US and its puppets to make people afraid of the US withdrawal and working to brainwash them to accept long-term occupation of Afghanistan." But even so, says RAWA, "ordinary Afghans, especially those in countryside, are against permanent bases of the US in the country. They see it as a threat to independence and national sovereignty of the country. They say 12 years of US/NATO existence in Afghanistan was full of treason against common people, and they pushed our country towards many new crisis and problems."
RAWA had opposed the US invasion right from the start in 2001, despite their groundbreaking work to document and expose the crimes of the Taliban. They saw the US as being driven by its own interests rather than the interests of ordinary Afghans. Today, that sentiment remains stronger than ever. RAWA told me, "We are for complete withdrawal of the US/NATO forces from Afghanistan. Their permanent presence will lead Afghanistan towards demise and tragedies. Their over one decade of presence show that they push our country to nowhere in order to fulfill their strategic, military and economic plans in their new game in Asia."
Former Afghan Parliamentarian and author of "A Woman Among Warlords," Malalai Joya, concurs. She told me in an interview during her recent US tour, "I speak on behalf of the suffering and oppressed people of the nation of Afghanistan that these troops should leave Afghanistan as soon as possible because their presence is making much harder our struggle for justice and peace."
The Misogynist Legacy of Occupation
During her speech to American audiences in October 2013, Joya routinely displayed Time Magazine's August 9, 2010 controversial cover image of Bibi Aisha, the young woman whose nose was brutally cut off by the Taliban husband she was forcibly married off to, as a punishment for attempting to run away. Joya asserted that rather than the headline Time chose, "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan," it would have been more accurate to say, "What Happens While We are In Afghanistan."
When the Taliban was accused in July 2012 of executing a woman for adultery, and in 2010, of stoning to death a couple accused of adultery, there was international outrage. But there has been little outrage in response to the news that Afghanistan's US-backed Parliament is now considering amending the nation's penal code to return to the repulsive practice of publicly stoning those who commit adultery.
Under the US occupation, Afghan women's rights have declined very predictably given the political and military power wielded by misogynist warlords who were rewarded by Washington in exchange for helping to defeat the Taliban. Many of those warlords acquired seats in Afghanistan's parliament and have overseen numerous laws eroding women's and human rights.
Even the moderate Hamid Karzai, upon winning his presidency, appointed a judiciary so fundamentalist that it put the Taliban to shame. Under Afghanistan's current legal framework, constructed while under US occupation, the number of Afghan women in prison has soared - most of them incarcerated for so-called "moral crimes," including the "crime" of being raped or running away from home.
That this turn of events has not generated alarming headlines in the West reveals the indifference American and European elites have always had toward women's rights. When it is convenient to paint the Taliban as monsters, Western leaders invoke the systematic violation of women's rights as a reason to occupy Afghanistan. But when the Western-backed central government has done the same, there is relative silence. And today, ordinary Afghans are paying a heavy price.
The Narcotic Legacy of Occupation
Another little-reported legacy of the US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan has been the sharp rise in drug production over the past 12 years. In the years before the October 2001 US invasion, the Taliban successfully suppressed poppy production in response to international sanctions. Now, Afghanistan has become an international center for drug production. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report this year detailing the "sobering record-high" opium poppy production in Afghanistan and how provinces previously poppy-free were no longer so.
According to RAWA, the US occupation has resulted in the creation of a "drug mafia" that "threatens our existence as a nation." Not only do illicit opium sales provide independent funding for the Taliban and the private militias of druglords, they also hurt ordinary Afghans, about 1.3 million of whom are addicts.
What Happens If the US Withdraws All Troops?
If a deal between the United States and Afghanistan does not materialize, it is possible that the US will indeed pull out all troops completely. The Obama Administration hinted that such a scenario was a distinct possibility as early as this past July, and there are indications that some parts of the administration feel that this would be popular with the US public. If all US troops do leave Afghanistan, the antiwar community in the United States will rightly celebrate the end of the longest war in US history.
But for ordinary Afghans, although a complete withdrawal will mean one less source of violence, it will certainly not mean the end of violence. The United States unleashed a series of disastrous policies in Afghanistan over 12 long years on a nation that was already terminally wasting away from 25 years of prior war and violence. In their statement on the 12th anniversary of the war, RAWA said, "It is clear that the situation will get worse after 2014, but not because of the withdrawal of the troops of the criminal US and NATO, but because the Taliban and Gulbuddini [warlords in Parliament] murderers will join the circle of other criminals who have been backed by the US and Karzai for many years now."
American taxpayers must accept the moral responsibility that we have funded the suffering of ordinary Afghan women, men and children and ensured through our government's policies during the failed occupation that they will continue to suffer long after the troops leave. Our only hope of redemption lies in supporting the grassroots and underground efforts of Afghan activists who risk their lives every day to wrest their nation back from armed elements and pursue true democracy, peace and justice.
Visit RAWA's website and Afghan Women's Mission, which is overseen on a volunteer basis by the author, and Malalai Joya's website. Other worthy Afghan organizations include the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, the Organization for Promoting Afghan Women's Capabilities, the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization, and Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan.