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War Without End? Obama Pursues "Occupation-Lite" in Afghanistan

The president wants to cement a continuing role for thousands of US troops in Afghanistan.

Photo Credit: AFP


Copyright, Reprinted with permission

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 acceptany 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 PartnershipAgreement, 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.

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