OCT. 1, 2014 — Over just two days, two landmark political events took place in Afghanistan: On Monday, the country’s first peaceful transfer of power, and on Tuesday, the signing of a U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement. Both events signal a chance — but hardly a guarantee — of political and security stabilization that will be necessary to reverse gains made by the Taliban and other militant groups.
The transfer of power may have been the result of an election, but Afghanistan is far from a Jeffersonian democracy. Instead, allegations of widespread fraud in the June voting threatened new fault lines that could have spiraled Afghanistan into even more chaos and warfare. But largely due to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s dogged diplomacy, a power-sharing agreement was hammered out between two rivals.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, whose experience includes working for the World Bank, became president despite the disputed vote. Among those crying foul were Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former foreign minister, who contested a controversial 2009 election that was won by outgoing President Hamid Karzai. The power-sharing pact made Abdullah Afghanistan’s chief executive, a position that will be similar to a prime minister.
Despite the distrust between the men and their supporters, both seem to recognize that the real enemy is the Taliban, which has made a remarkable comeback after being routed in the initial U.S. invasion in 2001. On Inauguration Day alone, for instance, the Taliban claimed credit for two bomb blasts in Kabul that killed 15.
One of the reasons for the resiliency is that the Taliban fed off allegations of Karzai’s corrupt and incompetent rule. Yet Afghans aren’t the only ones who won’t miss Karzai. He was an unreliable, ungrateful “ally” whose public threat to join the Taliban was just one of many transgressions against the United States, which sacrificed more than 2,300 lives, and billions of dollars, propping up his government.
One unifying issue between Ahmadzai and Abdullah was their commitment to sign the BSA. On Tuesday, Ahmadzai lived up to that promise and signed a similar agreement regarding NATO forces.
The BSA will allow the United States to keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the international combat mission winds down at the end of the year. The remaining troops would have two main missions, according to the Obama administration: Targeting al-Qaida remnants, and advising, assisting and training the Afghan National Security Forces who will be called on to defend the national government.
It’s perfectly understandable that many war-weary Americans hoped for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces. But they should consider what happened in Iraq when the Obama administration couldn’t ink a status-of-forces agreement. While there are many reasons why Iraq has plunged back into the abyss of sectarian warfare with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other extremists, the vacuum created by the U.S. pullout certainly didn’t help matters. Keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan to accomplish these key missions doesn’t necessarily mean more war. In fact, it could mean less if their presence helps steel Afghans to fight for their country with as much valor as Americans have.
The BSA also sends a strong security signal to the multiple international institutions and nongovernmental organizations that are essential for Afghanistan to move forward. If they were forced to exit because of a security vacuum, it could collapse the aid-dependent economy, risk years of incremental advances in civil society, health and education, and play right into the Taliban’s hands.
Ultimately, the job is up to the Afghans. Their new leaders will need to get beyond bitterness, and their security forces will need to use the training and equipment provided by Western nations to defend the country. Ideally, the Taliban will heed Ahmadzai’s call for the Taliban and other extremists to disarm and negotiate. “Our message is peace, (but) this doesn’t mean we are weak,” Ahmadzai said on Monday.
Indeed, the new unity government, however compromised, and the signing of security agreements with the United States and NATO are signs of strength that could help end the bloodshed in Afghanistan.