AS IT winds down its 12-year-old military commitment in Afghanistan, the United States is still looking for a face-saving way out of a conflict that seems headed, at best, for a stalemate.
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The new bilateral security agreement between the two nations is part of that exit strategy. So is a hoped-for political settlement with the Taliban, on which there has been no progress, and a 2014 presidential election process that is also having problems.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and Secretary of State John Kerry announced this month that they had agreed on key elements of a security deal that could keep some American troops in Afghanistan once the current NATO combat mission ends after 2014. But they did not reveal details, and there are reasons to wonder whether Mr. Karzai would want a post-2014 security agreement on terms that Washington would accept.
A major sticking point is legal jurisdiction over American forces who could be assigned to Afghanistan after next year, when the 51,000 troops there now have departed. The Obama Administration, which thought the issue had been resolved, has insisted that the troops have immunity from prosecution under Afghan law, and that any troops accused of crimes be tried in the United States.
Both sides have raised the stakes. Americans warn that all troops could be withdrawn if the immunity issue is not resolved in their favor. Mr. Karzai is delegating a final decision on the issue to an unpredictable tribal council and Parliament, instead of making it himself.
The United States has set an Oct. 31 deadline for a deal. But the talks could collapse much as they did in Iraq, where the failure to agree on an immunity deal hastened the withdrawal of all troops.
President Obama has not formally committed to deploying a residual force or said how big it might be. Nor has he or Mr. Kerry made a compelling case for why such a force would be necessary.
They have suggested it would focus on training Afghan security forces and preventing a resurgence of al-Qaeda. Ideally, all troops would come home as soon as possible, but Mr. Obama’s argument, if he has one, deserves a hearing.
News reports say many Afghans fear that the Kabul government could collapse and the country could return to civil war. The Taliban claimed responsibility for a recent suicide bomb attack near a residential compound on the outskirts of Kabul.
Even in Washington, officials acknowledge that once American forces depart, the Taliban likely will gain ground, at least in rural areas. The competence of Afghanistan’s 350,000-member security force remains in doubt, even after a $40 billion investment in American weaponry and training.
Afghan forces appear to have held their own against the insurgency in the recent fighting season. But they made no major gains and suffered what some officials said were heavy casualties.
U.S. commanders concluded that the war could end only with a negotiated settlement, not a military victory. But talks with the Taliban collapsed before they were to open last June, and are not expected to start until after the Afghan presidential election next April.
Proponents of a residual force say it is needed to protect Kabul and to pressure the Taliban to negotiate a settlement. They also argue that Congress is unlikely to keep paying for the Afghan army and police, at a cost of as much as $6 billion, unless Americans are deployed there.
These arguments might be convincing if Mr. Karzai and his cronies were leaders who had used the past decade, and billions of dollars in international aid, to build a government committed to delivering services and to winning the loyalty of the people. Instead, they fostered a corrupt system that has allowed the Taliban to remain a viable alternative force.
Just when the country needs to elect and unite around a new president, the political process, which is controlled to a large extent by Mr. Karzai, seems as vulnerable to corruption as ever. According to Reuters reports, voter cards, which are used to cast ballots, “have become a form of currency,” selling for about $5 each.
American troops, no matter how long they stay, cannot compensate for this kind of self-inflicted damage.