The Afghan government is pushing for a draft agreement for a small, long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan -- and one newly formed Afghan political group is pushing back.
The proposed agreement was jointly drafted over the course of many months by representatives of the U.S. and Afghan governments. It is intended to update the current security agreement signed in 2005, and would outline the U.S. military role in Afghanistan after 2014. The draft received a lukewarm endorsement this week from the Afghan Security Council, which told the cabinet that it was satisfied with most of the terms.
Not so for the National United Front, a newly formed alliance of former mujahedin leaders and clerics that took the agreement as a call for protest. In an apparent effort to present the protest as representative of not only religious voices, but of the secular intelligentsia as well, the avenue directly in front of Kabul University was chosen as the site of a rally held on October 24.
Hundreds came out to protest, which organizer Wahid Mozhdah says was aimed at highlighting their belief that a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan could only guarantee continued conflict.
Speaking to RFE/RL on October 25, Mozhdah questioned how, if nearly 130,000 international troops currently serving in his country cannot provide security, could a lower number of troops succeed after 2014?
"Experience has shown us that foreign forces cannot bring peace to Afghanistan. We will have peace when we remove the causes of conflict among [Afghan] people," Mozhdah said. "One of the key reasons for fighting here is that we don't trust each other. We need to sit and talk to each other to gain each others trust."
The opposition to the draft agreement also reached the halls of parliament, where the issue was discussed this week. The next stage for the debate is a loya jirga, or national council, whose date was announced this week and is intended to help determine a course of action.
The traditional gathering, set to begin on November 16, will provide a setting for more than 2,000 Afghan politicians, tribal leaders, clerics, and lawmakers to debate over a four-day period.
The 2005 security agreement signed by Kabul and Washington pledged U.S. cooperation for democracy building, improved governance, and economic and security cooperation. The new agreement focuses on the U.S. military role in the country after 2014, when most NATO combat operations are expected to be over.
Specific details are unavailable, but Afghan officials reportedly say the new agreement would likely give the government greater control over foreign aid and military operations while allowing a long-term U.S. presence in the country.
Afghan officials have also suggested in local media that some of their key demands, such as an end to night raids by foreign forces and mechanisms to protect Afghan civilians, are likely to be part of the final agreement.
In Afghanistan's Interests
These are among the most divisive issues within the Afghan government in its dealings with the United States, according to lawmaker Gul Badshah Majidi. He says that lawmakers on October 24 rejected a 2002 agreement with the International Security Assistance Force that allowed them to freely conduct military operations across Afghanistan. This, he says, indicates opposition to the new strategic agreement, which was also opposed by some lawmakers in recent debates.
Majidi says that the government needs to launch a robust information campaign to convince Afghans that the new agreement is different from the past agreements. And that it will actually serve Afghanistan's national interests. He says that the issue comes up in discussions with his constituents in southeastern Paktia Province who express pessimism over the deal.
But he says that they often change their views after learning more about the nature of the agreement. "I think the ultimate decision about the agreement will entail a legal framework for the presence of these forces. Their presence is needed in Afghanistan and it will serve Afghanistan's national interests," Majidi says. "The people of Afghanistan are still concerned about the return of the Taliban. They are also worried about an occupation by the Pakistan-based [fundamentalist] militias."
Afghan officials expect to host 2,030 people in the November loya jirga. They plan on briefing participants on the draft agreement before the assembly formally opens on November 16.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently indicated that the draft agreement agreed by the traditional leadership council will be sent to the parliament for final approval.