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The Three Most Important Words in the War

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There’s a phrase you might have heard used in discussions about Afghanistan: bilateral security agreement.

They’re no less than the three most important words in terms of what happens next in the war. The bilateral security agreement is the contract between the U.S. and Afghanistan that dictates what the relationship between the two countries will be after the drawdown of forces.

The Background
On May 2, 2012 President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a document called “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America.” That document details the future relationship between the two countries and in it both countries agreed to negotiate a bilateral security agreement within one year.

Karzai has repeatedly said that he won’t sign the bilateral security agreement because he believes having Americans in Afghanistan after this year is not in the best interest of his country. His country, however, disagrees.

The agreement has mainstream approval in Afghanistan’s political community, having been approved by both the loya jirga in November 2013 and more recently by the two candidates for president of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Why It’s Important
Without an agreement allowing our troops to stay and continue the transition, President Obama has said that all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by December 31, 2014. American officials say that without an agreement in place, it would be impossible for our troops to continue to operate in the country as the agreement dictates things such as U.S. access to military bases in Afghanistan and which country’s laws will govern the actions of U.S. troops there. Karzai says that he will leave the signing of the agreement up to his successor, who should be in office by August.

But Don’t We Want All of Our Troops Out of There?
Yes, of course we do. But how and when we leave Afghanistan will be important in determining what happens there after the war. Afghanistan is, by all accounts, a country in chaos and the Taliban is still strong. Many fear that a hasty American withdrawal will allow the Taliban to move into a power vacuum. That’s what happened after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 and why the Taliban was in power and able to allow bin Ladin’s Al Qaeda to operate and plan the September 11, 2001 attacks against the U.S. from Afghanistan.

Many experts are also looking to the current state of Iraq as an example of what the United States should seek to avoid in Afghanistan.

In a commentary published Sunday, May 4 on CNN.com, Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, compared Afghanistan to Iraq, saying:

“It is increasingly apparent that the United States left Iraq too soon, and it is with heavy hearts that we see the black flags flying in areas of Iraq where the United States expended our most precious treasure, the blood of our fellow citizens. We cannot let that happen in Afghanistan. A bilateral security agreement is critical if we’re going to successfully complete the work that has been accomplished to date and to help ensure that the gains we have made are not jeopardized like they have been in Iraq.”

So What Happens Now?
Now we wait and see. President Karzai, who has already served two terms, is not eligible for a third term. Last month Afghanistan held a presidential primary election and both primary winners have said that, if elected, they will sign the bilateral security agreement, meaning that U.S. troops will be allowed to stay longer. The U.S. has estimated it needs 102 days to conduct an orderly withdrawal – meaning a decision on American troop numbers in Afghanistan must be made by September.

According to General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, if Karzai’s successor signs the agreement, the Pentagon will be able to plan for a post-2014 scenario. Currently, without the agreement signed, the Pentagon is planning for two contingencies: a complete withdrawal after December 31 or a limited withdrawal with a conversion of a remaining force of 3,000 to 10,000 troops still in the country.

As Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, “I’ve said it before – the very best exit strategy is not to have an exit strategy,” Crocker told Time Magazine, “signaling to friends and foes alike that we’re in this for the long run.”

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/dvids/6841684056/”>DVIDSHUB</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>

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