An Afghan honor guard carries a US flag before a news conference with the US secretary of state and the Afghan president.
Credit: Massoud Hossaini

Late Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced they had resolved most major issues that had been stalling a key security accord between Washington and Kabul.

The bilateral security agreement, or BSA, will determine how many US troops remain in Afghanistan after 2014, and under what conditions.

The deal could still founder in Afghanistan’s rebellious parliament. Even if it passes the legislature, Karzai said, it will have to be approved by an assembly of elders known as a Loya Jirga, to be convened sometime in the next month.

Kerry arrived in Kabul Friday for a lightening round of diplomacy designed to push a recalcitrant Karzai into backing off what the United States sees as unreasonable demands.

The top US diplomat delayed his departure twice as the talks bogged down, but finally the pair emerged to say that an agreement was in the works.

Negotiations had stalled over Karzai’s demands that Washington agree to ensure Afghanistan’s security following the withdrawal, accompanied by Washington’s insistence on a free hand to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan even after its troops depart.

Karzai wants guarantees that the US will defend his country as it would a NATO ally; what analysts say he really wants is protection from neighboring Pakistan.

But Washington is not about to accept an obligation that could compel it to launch raids on Pakistan, a country of nearly 180 million people that’s armed with nuclear weapons, and which is, moreover, an ally and a recipient of a great deal of US aid.

More GlobalPost analysis: Taliban's tearing up Pakistan, but which Taliban is it? 

Kabul, for its part, is prickly about sovereignty, and wants an end to night raids, drone strikes, and other operations on Afghan soil. Karzai was reportedly furious about a recent US raid in Logar province that seized a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Latif Mehsud, who was in the custody of Afghan intelligence officials at the time.

During the news conference Karzai said US troops would not be permitted to carry out unilateral operations under the agreement.

Kerry is insisting on US jurisdiction over crimes committed by its troops; Karzai said that could only be decided by the Loya Jirga.

This is not the first time Kerry has tried to bully or cajole the Afghan leader. In the wake of a deeply flawed presidential election in 2009, Kerry had to persuade Karzai to accept a runoff, which he did, grudgingly. The ballot was canceled, however, when Karzai’s rival withdrew.

Afghanistan is preparing for a new presidential election next April. Karzai cannot run again, and Washington would like to get a security agreement in place now, to prevent it from becoming a campaign issue.

Postwar Afghanistan: “no gains” and still not secure

The notoriously mercurial Afghan president has been particularly difficult lately.

In an interview with the BBC on Monday, Karzai lashed out at NATO and the US, saying that the 12-year intervention has “caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure."

Karzai is well known for biting the hand that feeds him. More than 90 percent of the Afghan government’s operating budget comes from NATO and US assistance.

Some think Karzai’s testiness is mostly for domestic consumption: He has to show his countrymen that he is no puppet.

As Boston University anthropology professor Thomas Barfield wrote in 2009, this is a natural conundrum for an Afghan ruler who “to be successful … will need to convince Afghans that he will not be beholden to foreigners even as he convinces these same foreigners to fund his state and its military.”

But retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry thinks that the problem between Karzai and his foreign backers is more fundamental.

Eikenberry, who served as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan and also as Washington’s ambassador to Kabul, is unflinching in his assessment of the long and painful war.

In a piece in October’s Foreign Affairs, he paints a grim picture of American hubris and Afghan malfeasance that led inexorably to failure in Afghanistan.

Washington and Kabul were essentially engaged in different wars, Eikenberry says. The US soldiers were battling the Afghan Taliban on Afghan soil, while Karzai was convinced that the problem was across the border.

“US military commanders diagnosed Afghanistan’s problem as an indigenous insurgency, albeit one made worse by the insurgents’ access to sanctuaries in Pakistan,” Eikenberry writes. “By contrast, Karzai and many of his compatriots diagnosed the problem as militant extremism, exported from Pakistan but cleverly masquerading itself in local garb.”

Time and again Karzai railed against the US for fighting a war against Afghans, when they are not the enemy.

"The war against terrorism is not in Afghan villages, is not in the Afghan countryside," he told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer in 2009.

But Washington was convinced it knew best.

Senior commanders had become “intellectually arrogant and cognitively rigid,” and, in a sense “[found] themselves fighting the wrong war,” Eikenberry writes.

Karzai has been talking tough; he told the BBC that he was in no hurry to sign the security pact.

"If the agreement doesn't suit us then of course [the US] can leave,” he said.

But without US money and troops, Karzai’s government, and perhaps his entire country, is in great peril.

As Barfield put it, “In the absence of [a strong leader] and the departure of foreign forces, Afghanistan will not survive as a unitary state. The most likely event in that case would be a sundering of the country along regional lines.”

Given the extreme war weariness in Washington, a sustained American commitment will be a tough sell, according to Stephen Biddle, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Afghan aid will get even harder to defend the next time an Afghan corruption scandal hits the newspapers, or Afghan protests erupt over an accidental Koran burning, or an American adviser is killed by an Afghan recipient of US aid, or an Afghan president plays to local politics by insulting American sensibilities,” Biddle writes.

Karzai is convinced that Washington will not leave Afghanistan in the lurch. But he may be overplaying his hand.

The US has already floated the idea of withdrawing completely — the so-called “zero option.”

Biddle says that a “defensible approach” would be “for the United States to cut its losses and get all the way out of Afghanistan now, leaving behind no advisory presence and reducing its aid substantially.”

This, he acknowledges, would lead inevitably to “many Afghans losing their lives and freedoms,” but it would save the US from what he called “failure on the installment plan.”

Eikeberry, too, sounds a note of caution. Washington might have good intentions, but in the end it will do what is best for the people at home.

“While making Afghanistan a better place to live is certainly a noble goal, it is not necessarily a vital US national interest,” he writes.

As Kerry left Kabul Saturday night, Afghans had a much more joyous occasion to celebrate: the arrival of their victorious cricket team, which has just qualified for the 2015 World Cup.

If there is an Afghanistan by 2015, that is.

Jean MacKenzie worked as a reporter in Afghanistan from October 2004 to December 2011, first as the head of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, then as a senior correspondent for GlobalPost.

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