A monthslong effort by the United States and Afghanistan to hammer out a long-term security arrangement has so far achieved one obvious result -- each side has established clear red lines.
Read between those lines, however, and there appears to be enough common ground for each side to get what they want.
Going by the positions publicly taken by the two sides, they are at polar opposites on the terms of a continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
Afghan officials have said that if U.S. troops are to remain, they must answer to Afghan law. Upping the ante, officials as high up as the Afghan president have called for U.S. troops to pick up and leave entirely.
U.S. officials, eyeing the end of the current campaign in 2014, have made clear that they want a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in place to protect U.S. troops from prosecution in Afghanistan. With no SOFA agreement, according to the message being sent from Washington, the "zero option" of leaving no troops behind is a very real possibility.
A Need To Agree
So far, neither side has budged from its key demands. The reality, however, is that both Kabul and Washington are reluctant to boost the very real prospects of an Afghan civil war. And this means that each side will likely make concessions that will result in a bilateral security agreement and an accompanying SOFA accord that both set the rules of conduct and legal status for a continued U.S. military presence.
Anatol Lieven, a professor and Afghanistan expert at King's College London, predicts that Kabul will have no choice but to bend to Washington's demand for a SOFA agreement. "What is absolutely nonnegotiable as far as the Americans are concerned if they stay is that they will have jurisdiction over their forces and they will run those forces separately," he says. "There is no way on earth that the Americans will subordinate their forces in Afghanistan to the Afghan government, at least when it comes to issues such as discipline."
Looming large is the precedent set in Iraq, where the United States pulled all of its forces out of the country in 2011 after negotiations on a SOFA broke down.
Whether Kabul is truly prepared to risk such an outcome, despite its hard negotiating stance, is questionable. Turning away security does not appear to be a realistic option for a fledgling government facing formidable internal and regional security threats.
In fact, one key demand being pushed by Kabul in the negotiations is that the U.S. military guarantees Afghanistan's security.
Is Pakistan An Ally?
Kabul has long complained about infiltration by insurgents from Pakistan and about cross-border shelling carried out from the territory of its eastern neighbor.
Rangin Dadfar Spanta, who as Karzai's national-security adviser is close to the security negotiations, tells RFE/RL that Kabul seeks guarantees of support from Washington. "If Pakistan, as the United States tells us, is an ally of the United States, then the United States should convince its ally to destroy the safe havens and training centers of terrorism on its soil, in order to prevent the terrorists from using Pakistani soil [to prepare] for attacks against Afghanistan," he says. "If Pakistan is not an ally of the United States, and is an aggressor, then in that case the United States is our ally and should stand on our side [against the aggressor]."
A senior U.S. official familiar with the negotiations tells RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that "We are not negotiating a security commitment."
This means any deal that would obligate the United States to defend Afghanistan against Pakistan would be a "nonstarter," according to Ryan Evans, assistant director at the Center for the National Interest, a non-partisan public policy institution based in Washington. But the United States could help Kabul help itself reach its main objective -- Afghan security -- by dangling modern military equipment, including tanks, heavily artillery, fighter jets, and surveillance capabilities, to help Afghan forces keep their enemies at bay.
"This has to be viewed holistically, so everything will come into everything. This is a giant negotiation where so many things are on the table [including] what sort of weapons systems the U.S. is going to leave behind and what sort of equipment the U.S. is going to give to the Afghan military," Evans says. "So all of this has to fit together in the right way."
A Continuing Commitment
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, suggests that a SOFA arrangement could actually lead to a greater residual troop presence in Afghanistan than the United States is believed to be considering. There are currently around 66,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have said a residual U.S. presence after 2014 could range from a few thousand to 20,000, but specific troops levels will not be announced until this fall.
"Troop levels are something the U.S. will be willing to negotiate and adjust its strategy accordingly," Kugelman says. "I imagine Afghanistan will want more troops than the United States is initially willing to leave in Afghanistan after 2014. I think there could be some wiggle room, freedom, and willingness on the part of Washington to compromise and make concessions."
Any additional sweetener, if needed, would come in the form of cold, hard cash. The Afghan government has demanded assurances from Washington that it will make a multiyear financial commitment to sustain the Afghan economy and the Afghan security forces, including the army, police, and air force.
Washington promises to seek funds on a yearly basis from the U.S. Congress for social and economic assistance to Afghanistan, but has not specified forms of aid.
A compromise could come in the form of an agreement similar to the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework, which established guidelines for international aid provided to Afghanistan. The framework commits Kabul to mutually agreed-upon targets on defending human rights, tackling corruption, and promoting good governance. At least $16 billion in development aid from international donors is dependent on Kabul meeting those standards.