In the lead up to Afghanistan’s much-anticipated Loya jirga — a traditional meeting of influential tribal leaders — on November 19-21, momentum towards signing a critical security pact with the United States is slowing, if not reversing.
Not least because of stalling efforts by President Hamid Karzai, who has ramped up his anti-U.S. rhetoric in recent months. At issue is the question of immunity for American troops who would remain in Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal at the end of 2014. (A sticking point intensified by allegations of torture and murder by U.S. special forces in Wardak province earlier this year.)
After reaching a stalemate with U.S. Secretary of State John in October, Karzai handed the decision over to the Loya jirga. The Kabul rumor mill has it that the president is hoping to introduce additional items to the council’s agenda — namely a delay in the April 2014 presidential elections, in a gambit to prolong his presidency.
Such maneuvering is part of a multi-pronged pre-election push by Karzai, one that includes the president’s recent run of anti-U.S. posturing (he has long been derided as a U.S. puppet). Karzai looks to have his finger in the slate of presidential candidates as well. However, any effort to provoke a discussion about the elections will prove a temporary distraction. With Washington’s attention firmly fixed on Kabul, there is little question the Loya jirga will focus on the BSA.
But Karzai is not the only one looking to derail the gathering. This week, Taliban leaders sent a letter to council members urging a Loya jirga boycott, replete with death threats. No one stands to gain more than the Taliban if international forces leave Afghanistan. (Since NATO handed over day-to-day combat operations to Afghan security forces this spring, casualties and defections have soared.) The insurgency has warned repeatedly of an intensification of its anti-government campaign if U.S. boots remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
But what will happen if they don’t? Regional experts warn of a return to civil war if the United States pursues a “zero option.” At stake are Afghan security and economic stability. Alongside the withdrawal of U.S. troops, millions of dollars of foreign military and civilian aid are expected to vanish. The deficit would leave a deep swathe among multiple sectors, including real estate, logistics and construction — i.e., the many jobs created to support the U.S. military presence — and civil society.
In contrast, the Taliban’s funding seems if not assured, then promising. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, opium production in Afghanistan has reached a record level, three times higher than in 2006. With Karzai looking to stall the U.S. deal (or at least divert responsibility for it, given high anti-American sentiment), it falls to the Loya jirga to weigh a potential popular backlash and Taliban retaliation against the advantages of cozying up to the Americans. Waning momentum notwithstanding, the lessons of Iraq — which is sliding back into sectarian warfare two years after declining a BSA with the U.S. — are sure to loom large.