Afghanistan and the United States signed the historic Strategic Pact on July 4, 2012 opening a new chapter in relations between the two countries. The most critical component of the agreement was the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which was to be concluded within a year of the signing of the strategic pact. The BSA is in fact an integral component of the pact and its logical conclusion. If the two countries fail to reach an agreement on BSA, the already signed Strategic Pact could be considered to have lost its meaning for all practical purposes. In that case, the strategic pact will only have symbolic value and will remain an inconclusive document at best.
The proposed BSA is being intensely debated in Afghan political and civil society circles for the past year. While some of the discussion is part of genuine political dialogue, a good part of it is a negative propaganda due to a foreign-sponsored campaign to prevent the BSA from being realised. Although an agreement in principle seems to have been made on the enduring presence of US forces beyond 2014, the issue of legal jurisdiction of these forces remains to be addressed. The Afghan side has been adamant to not accept the so called “legal immunity” for US forces. The US, on the other hand, does not seem prepared to accept that its forces could be tried within the Afghan Judicial System in the event that its troops are accused of crime committed during operations.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan has witnessed a poor track record of the US forces during the past 10 years of their military operations. The latter were either directly or indirectly involved in incidents where innocent civilians were impacted. These included drone attacks, night raids and unnecessary imprisonment. The issue of legal jurisdiction has its own complexity for both Afghanistan and the US. Afghan government believes that, accepting the US proposed jurisdictional framework as it is, will have consequence for Afghanistan both in terms of its legitimacy as well as sustainability of the engagement. For the US, accepting Afghanistan Judiciary to have control over the misconduct of its forces might not be feasible either. It would be wise, if the two countries agree on a mechanism that somehow mitigates the concerns of both sides. Such an arrangement might open the door for limited involvement of Afghan legal authority in the event of an incident. Although, the legal definition and implementation of such mechanism would be too complex, it is worth the effort.
President Karzai’s apparent reluctance to go for the BSA on his own speaks of the political significance of the task. That is why a consultative Loya Jirga (Traditional Grand Assembly) which is to be convened in about a week, will decide on the fate of BSA. In case of an affirmative response, the modalities of the agreement will be thoroughly reviewed and recommendations made to Karzai for the way forward. The Grand Assembly has already endorsed the Strategic Pact in November 2011. Endorsing the BSA may not be so much of a constitutional requirement as a need for political consensus on an issue of national importance that has strategic implications for the country and the region. However, one must also realise that Karzai’s seemingly adamant approach to the issue of BSA might also be related to his concerns for his so-called nationalist reputation. He might be afraid that Afghans might perceive him in future to be someone who paved the way for foreign military bases in his country at the cost of his country’s sovereignty. The critical factor to decide whether we go for BSA or not must be to answer the fundamental question of whether Afghanistan would be more sovereign with BSA or without it.
It is a defining moment in our history. Not all Afghans have the same level of political wisdom. Sanity should prevail over emotional characterisation of the matter. We are living in real world where decisions are made based on pragmatism. Nationalism at best should be the true reflection of our own national interests and not what others tell us. It is up to our political leadership as well as our elected representatives to overcome the sentimental aspects of the matter and make a wise judgment based on realities on the ground. History will judge Karzai not on his short-term image as a consequence of this historic decision but on the long-term implications of BSA for Afghanistan. If a leader is to choose between his or her personal image and national interests, it certainly is the latter choice that a true leader will make.
Afghanistan will be taking over full responsibility for its security by 2014 when international forces leave the country. If a security deal is not reached by then, the country might be left vulnerable to foreign interference and internal tension. Signing the pact might carry its own risks where some countries of the region might presume the proposed pact to be a potential security threat. The US must share the burden of responsibility of convincing our neighbours that the Pact is Afghanistan-centric. It must convey the message that combating insurgency, assisting in building capacity of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) and providing mentoring and training to ANSF are the main focus of the pact without any ulterior motives.
Ajmal Shams is President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party better known as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party and is based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He holds a master degree from the US and writes on political and developmental issues. He also served as policy advisor to the Afghanistan Transition Coordination Commission.