Maintaining U.S. Presence in Afghanistan Without a Bilateral Security Agreement
By: Becca Smith
Current U.S. policy toward Afghanistan (no troops or money without a bilateral security agreement, or BSA) creates the risk that 2014 might end with a full withdrawal of NATO forces, endangering hard-won progress in the Afghan takeover of security. Yet a BSA, while important, is not necessary at this time. Even without it, the United States should be posturing U.S. forces now for the “train, advise, and assist” mission of 8,000 to 12,000 troops referred to as Operation Resolute Support. Afghan presidential frontrunners Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have pledged that they will sign a BSA, but formation of the new government could take months, too long for the United States and NATO to wait.
The Obama administration has sufficient legal basis to back down from its high stakes negotiating position over the BSA. The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai in 2012 called for a BSA but also reaffirmed existing security agreements in the absence of a BSA. One of these existing agreements concerns the “Afghanization of Special Operations” and describes the United States as continuing “the full range of support” needed for Afghan special operations forces to succeed. The language is broad: U.S. military support may include intelligence support, “lift, fires support, MEDEVAC, and security.” In other words, U.S.-Afghan agreements such as this already allow for the types of activities envisioned under the BSA. In addition, the Strategic Partnership Agreement left open the possibility of “other arrangements, mutually determined.”
The drawdown clock is ticking inexorably. President Obama needs to decide quickly how low to go. International force decisions, civilian aid decisions, private-sector investment, and much more hinge on a predictable transition. Maintaining a robust U.S. post-combat presence in Afghanistan and funding Afghan security forces is consistent with Obama’s legacy as an “ender of wars.” The temptation after 13 years of U.S. involvement in a burdensome conflict with a thankless partner is to think that the United States has done all it can do, and all it needs to do. On the contrary, we have a new partner and a job to finish.