KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Efforts to forge a deal that will govern the American military presence in Afghanistan beyond a planned U.S troop withdrawal in 2014 are faltering, current and former Afghan officials said on Monday.
They said obstacles include disputes over the transfer of American-run detention centers, night raids and quarrels within the Afghan president’s inner circle that led one of his top advisers to threaten to resign.
The failure to make headway on a strategic partnership document reflects growing animosity between President Hamid Karzai and the United States, which reached its lowest level after the burning of Qurans and other Islamic texts at a U.S. military base on Feb. 20. That incident sparked six days of angry riots across Afghanistan that left 30 people dead, including six U.S. troops who were killed by Afghan security forces.
Karzai has been stubborn about his demands — apparently so much so that he is losing the backing of some of his own top aides. Although the president cannot be seen to be a pushover to the U.S. on sovereignty issues, many top Afghan officials believe that Afghanistan’s government is too shaky to stand on its own. They sense that Washington is now pushing back against Karzai in the talks, and fear that the Americans may simply wash their hands of Karzai or perhaps the entire Afghan war.
Afghan officials stress that Afghanistan wants a deal, but that its sovereignty should be respected.
“Afghanistan is committed to have a long-term strategic partnership with the United States of America, who is our important international ally. But as we have mentioned repeatedly, the Afghan government wants to sign a strategic partnership with the U.S. for the long term, and the national sovereignty of Afghanistan should be respected in that strategic partnership,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai told reporters on Monday.
The president can’t afford not to make a deal with the United States, which provides Afghanistan with billions of dollars in development aid and funds most of the training for the country’s army and police, which are to take control of the country’s security at the end of 2014.
The U.S. spent $22 billion in the past two years for training and is expected to contribute the bulk of the approximately $4 billion a year that 260,000-strong force will need to operate in 2015 and beyond.
An Afghan government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, said that more than two months ago National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta submitted his resignation after disagreements erupted between him and Karzai over the strategic partnership document.
Spanta, who is spearheading the talks, wants Karzai to compromise on the two most contentious issues being negotiated — night raids and the U.S. transfer of detention facilities to Afghan government control.
Karzai did not accept Spanta’s resignation, but kept the letter and did not destroy it or throw it out. Spanta verbally threatened to resign on two subsequent occasions, mostly recently in the past several days, the official said.
The official and Davood Moradian, who was an adviser to Spanta when he was foreign minister, said the strategic partnership deal might not be ready for a NATO summit in May.
Such a delay could torpedo the deal, as the United States has already been showing decreasing enthusiasm about it.
Spanta was on a trip to China and not available to comment, but Moradian said the resignation threat was part of an effort to pressure Karzai into a compromise.
“There is a possibility that if that tactic didn’t work he would resign,” said Moradian, assistant professor of political science at American University in Kabul. Moradian was the chief policy adviser to Spanta when he was foreign minister.
The strategic partnership document is critical to define the U.S. commitment to aid and development in Afghanistan after 2014, when most international combat forces are to leave. It is also considered a precursor to a status of forces agreement that will govern the presence and role of U.S. forces in the country after 2014. The U.S. is expected to keep about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014 in counterterrorism and training roles.
A U.S. embassy spokesman, Gavin Sundwall, told The Associated Press that the Americans valued an agreement, but not so much that they preferred a bad deal to no deal at all.
“We still are committed to a strategic partnership with the Afghan people, which we believe is in both our countries’ interest to achieve our joint mission and ensure that Afghanistan cannot become a safe haven for terrorists again,” Sundwall said.
“We have always said it is more important to get the right agreement than to get an agreement.”
The comment was the first indication that the United States might be pushing back at what many consider to be Karzai’s intransigence on the issue of detainees and night raids. Karzai has increasingly been hardening his position and pushing his agenda with incidents such as the Quran burnings.
“I think there is a growing understanding in Washington …. that they cannot sign the agreement with Karzai,” Moradian said. “My assessment is that they are contemplating signing it with the next president of the country. At the moment that this poison atmosphere exists between Karzai and Washington, there a logic” to delay the signing until a new president is replaced.
Karzai was re-elected in 2009 and his five-year term expires in 2014. He is barred under Afghanistan’s constitution from running for a third.
Karzai and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker were to meet late Monday to discuss a variety of issues, one of the Afghan officials said. The two regularly meet twice a week to discuss current issues in the U.S.-Afghan relationship, but the partnership deal was likely to monopolize the Monday meeting.
Karzai has demanded that the Parwan Detention Facility be handed over on March 9. Afghan officials say privately that a U.S. proposal to hand over the facility in six months would be acceptable to some in the Karzai government, but that the president had not yet embraced the idea.
“The United States has repeatedly made clear that it is committed to working with the Afghan government to complete a transition of detention operations in Afghanistan in a manner that is safe and orderly and in accordance with our international legal obligations,” Sundwall said.
U.S. military officials have repeatedly said that the date for handing over the Parwan facility would be based on the ability of the Afghan government to run it.
The Americans have stood strong on the need for night raids, saying that the operations are one of its most effective tools for finding and capturing insurgents, especially with fewer conventional forces.
Karzai has said that Afghans should be the only ones doing night raids because the invasion of privacy from troops entering a families’ home is compounded when the soldiers are Westerners. He has also said that too many of these night raids have resulted in civilian deaths or the detention of non-insurgents.
He said Karzai views having foreign forces in charge of Afghan detainees as a symbolic affront to Afghan sovereignty. Moradian said another reason might be that he thinks he can use detainees as leverage in any peace talks with the Taliban.
“When it comes to the peace negotiation, he would have some degree of control on the detainees,” Moradian said. “He wants to make sure he has the detainee cards to play with.”