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The Killid Group
Talking about the talksWritten by Mohammad Reza Gulkohi
Sunday, 07 August 2011 10:53
Would Afghan interests be better served by a treaty or declaration with the US? This is not the bottom line of the 'strategic partnership', though: will there be military bases, how many and where?
Opinion is divided over the contours of a US-Afghan strategic treaty which will define relations between the two countries in the wake of the withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of 2014.
Nothing has been finalised. The talks are as yet only discussions between the two sides.
The presence of US military bases in Afghanistan has been a sticking point. People have aired misgivings over Afghanistan's sovereignty, and concerns about long-term US domination of the region.
Rafiullah, a resident of Kabul, thinks US military bases like Bagram would threaten Afghan independence and upset delicate relations with Afghanistan's neighbours. However, Abdul Aziz, another resident is of the opinion that the bases will "increase our country's national defence power."
A Loy-e-Jirga or grand assembly called four months ago by President Hamid Karzai to take a decision on US military bases was put off by more pressing disputes over the outcome of parliamentary elections.
But the issue has come centre-stage with the newly-appointed US ambassador Ryan Clark Crocker telling foreign media on July 31 that US-Afghan strategic relation will be defined and decided according to a declaration.
Crocker, who was US ambassador to Iraq two years ago, said discussions were at a "preliminary" stage. "We are discussing with the Afghan government about US-Afghan strategic treaty as an implementing agreement or a declaration," he said. It would lay down the foundation for strategic cooperation, he clarified. Moreover, "any contract or treaty that is passed has to be approved by the US Congress", he said. An approval was a "complicated process", he concluded.
His comments have sparked off questions here on whether a declaration or a treaty would best serve Afghan interests?
Declaration vs Treaty
Afghan political observers see a fundamental difference between the two. Mahmood Saiqal, political expert, believes a declaration only reflects common viewpoints and is not binding in any way, while a "treaty is a legally enforceable commitment, controlled and supervised by international laws and institutions".
Under a US-Afghan strategic treaty, either side can demand that all articles mentioned in the treaty are implemented, and in case of infringement, they can take their complaints to international organisations, to "put pressure", according to Saiqal.
As an example of how declarations are not enforceable he cited the case of the 2005 declaration between the US and Afghanistan, which among other things, deals with the handing over of the Bagram and Shindand air fields to the US. Because of its weakness, the Afghan government, however, has not been able to demand US forces defend the territorial integrity and national independence of Afghanistan.
Why have US officials changed their minds on the US Afghan strategic cooperation treaty? What do they hope to achieve?
Ambassador Crocker seems to suggest that the change of heart was merely because the process of seeking approval from Congress was far more complicated.
Wahid Mojdah, political analyst, believes a cash-strapped US is seeking to reduce financial commitments in Afghanistan. In addition, there is a belief that a declaration will pave the way for the signing of a treaty between the two countries. "It seems possible that the US wants to get Afghanistan to sign a strategic treaty and ensure permanent military presence by (first) putting pressure on the Afghan government through a declaration that does not bind either side," he told Killid in an interview. Consequently, an aid-dependant Afghanistan will agree to anything the US wants, including a strategic treaty that will favour Washington more than Kabul, he argues.
Noorulhaq Ollumi, a former MP in the Lower House, is more inclined to think the change in US thinking has more to do with its domestic political and economic situation. "President (Barack) Obama's administration is not interested in long term US military commitment in Afghanistan … They believe Afghanistan is not a trustable and strategic partner for the US, that's why they are not interested in a strategic cooperation treaty … and they are trying to sign a cooperation declaration."
Meanwhile, Saiqal thinks Afghanistan may be caught in a fight between Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress. "Though the Republicans are interested to stay in Afghanistan for a long time, Democrats are not. They are mainly interested in preparing for a final exit from Afghanistan."
Whatever US compulsions may be, the Afghan government must protect national interests, political analysts agree. A treaty that balances both US and Afghan interests would go a long way in strengthening Afghanistan domestically, and in the region. However, others think that this new discussion is still less important than deciding if there will be or not US bases in Afghanistan, where and how many.