President Obama Flies to Kabul As US Outlines Afghan Strategic Partnership
United States president Barack Obama has staged an unannounced trip to Afghanistan to sign the countries' long-term strategic partnership agreement.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
US president Barack Obama used his visit to Afghanistan to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death and to reassure American voters that the now unpopular Afghan war is drawing to a close.
The details of the strategic partnership have yet to be made public, but it will span a decade and requires US forces to operate from Afghan facilities after 2014.
Despite unresolved questions about the deal, the US vision for Afghanistan over the next 10 years is becoming clearer, with the overwhelming focus being to prevent the country from being used by militants as a platform for attacks beyond its borders.
United States president Barack Obama arrived in Afghanistan yesterday (1 May) on an unannounced visit. The official purpose of his appearance was to sign the long-term strategic partnership agreement struck between the countries last week (see United States - Afghanistan: 23 April 2012: US and Afghanistan Finalise Long-Term Partnership). Less officially, Obama's visit was to mark the anniversary of the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. As IHS Global Insight forecast on the day of bin Laden's death, that operation has since become a major plank of Obama's re-election campaign, as well as opening political space for talks with Afghanistan's Taliban rebels, ushering in a new Al-Qaeda leadership under Ayman al-Zawahiri, and increasing the weight of the group's franchises outside South Asia (see Pakistan: 2 May 2011: Al-Qaeda Leader Bin Laden Killed in Pakistan).
An Eye on Home
Faced with six months of campaigning to secure his re-election, the trip to Kabul conferred some political benefits on Obama. He was videoed receiving an enthusiastic reception from US service personnel at Bagram air base, positive news coverage of a kind difficult for his Republican rival Mitt Romney to replicate. The president gave his speech at the base standing in front of armoured vehicles, underscoring his status as commander-in-chief, and he used the address to mark the one-year anniversary of the raid by special-forces troops to kill bin Laden in Pakistan. A television advert released by Obama's campaign this week has been condemned by Republicans for implying that Romney would not have launched that operation. Senior Republicans have labelled the ad cheap and inappropriate. "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," Romney responded, referring to the dovish, one-term Democratic president to whom Romney often compares Obama. Carter did, in fact, order an even more ambitious helicopter-borne raid to free hostages at the US embassy in Iran in 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, but this failed badly and contributed to Carter losing his re-election bid. By contrast, the success of the raid ordered by Obama is not in question.
Aside from the bin Laden anniversary, Obama used his speech to justify his policy of withdrawing from Afghanistan all military personnel not connected to counter-terrorism or training. He said it was now paramount for Afghans to assume responsibility for their own security and predicted that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) would peak at 352,000 this year. The US objective, he reiterated, was not to eradicate the Taliban or to build a democracy in the image of the US?these goals were too expensive and too dangerous for US service personnel?but simply to destroy Al-Qaeda. The phased withdrawal of US forces over the next 30 months would allow Afghanistan to stabilise, he argued. This month's NATO summit in Chicago will set a target for the ANSF to take the lead in all security operations by the end of this year, while the final 23,000 "surge" troops Obama ordered into Afghanistan in 2009 would be withdrawn by the end of this summer.
NATO soldiers in discussions as smoke comes out
Shortly after Obama left Kabul, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked a residential compound in the east of the city, killing at least seven civilians, in what appeared to be an assertion of the militants' reach. One reason for the shift away from confronting the Taliban is the intractable problem of their safe havens in Pakistan. The US Department of Defense's (DoD's) biannual report to Congress on progress in Afghanistan, released on 1 May, said that this factor was among the two greatest risks to long-term Afghan stability, along with the limited abilities and probity of the Afghan government. With sanctuaries in Pakistan offering "notable operational and regenerative capacity", the insurgency in Afghanistan has remained "resilient and determined" and "will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer through assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks and the emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs)", according to the report. More positively, it reported that the number of ANSF units ranked at the most capable "independent with advisers" rating had grown significantly, from one "kandak" (battalion) in September 2011 to 52 such units in April 2012.
The Strategic Deal
Full details of the strategic deal have yet to emerge, despite it now having been signed by both presidents. However, a background briefing by senior administration officials provided a few more indications of its contents. The partnership lasts for 10 years and it is designed to avoid the mistake made by the international community in 1989, when it abandoned the Soviet-backed government to a rapid decline. The agreement is split into five sections: long-term security; reinforcing regional security and co-operation; social and economic development; strengthening Afghan institutions and government; and implementing arrangements and mechanisms. Implementation will be overseen by biannual meetings between the US Secretary of State and Afghanistan's foreign minister.
The strategic partnership does not provide for the establishment of permanent US bases. Instead, it grants US forces access to Afghan facilities after 2014. As Obama said, these forces will have two missions: to train the ANSF and to target Al-Qaeda. The deal does not commit the US to any specific troop levels or funding, which will be defined in a separate agreement, but it does commit the US government to seek congressional funding for Afghan operations, as well as for civilian development funds.
Outlook and Implications
A key question is the extent to which US military trainers and advisers in Afghanistan operate from centralised camps and schools, or are embedded with Afghan units. In his speech, Obama said that US forces would no longer be patrolling Afghanistan's "cities and mountains". However, given the difficulty of building a professional officer class within the ANSF, US military advisers may be needed to adopt a more hands-on role than indicated by the president, with a commensurate increase in risk and the chance of "mission creep". Nor is it clear whether the US will continue to be able to launch air strikes with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Pakistan from airbases in Afghanistan, if by doing so the ANSF is viewed as providing the facilities from which the CIA stages the attacks on its neighbour. On 29 April, Pakistan's foreign ministry condemned the latest UAV strike in North Waziristan as "in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations".
The overall trajectory of Obama's policy appears to be towards an ANSF that is reasonably well-funded, mainly from international backers, and capable of securing major settlements from the Taliban. Operating in parallel will be an in-country US special-forces and intelligence presence to interdict any transnational threat detected from groups within Afghanistan, for instance, but not exclusively, Al-Qaeda. At this point, the distinction between the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups becomes somewhat blurred, as indicated by an unnamed US official earlier this week (see United States - Afghanistan: 20 April 2012: US Al-Qaeda Leak Inflicts Blow to Taliban Talks Process). The public profile of the conflict is likely to decline substantially in the US and among its allies, with the possibility that the Taliban could expand its geographical presence without attracting intensive international debate. For this reason, it is hard to see the Taliban offering significant concessions in peace talks.
- Indian government releases DPCO 2013, expanding price controls to 652 drugs
- Budget 2014: US administration signals greater willingness to compromise
- Global Economic Impact of the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster
- Key US data releases and events
- Consumer spending and export recovery drive Japan's GDP growth in Q1
- Chinese vehicle sales and production rise to over 2 mil. units in March, Q1 sales up 13.2% y/y – CAAM
- GDP, inflation, retail sales, public finances, and Bank of England minutes all feature in UK Economic Week starting 20 May
- Slow start to 2013 highlights ongoing economic challenges in Vietnam
- Battle for Al-Qusayr marks critical moment in Syrian conflict
- Honda Announces Future Business Strategy