The signing of the strategic deal with the U.S., either in the shape of a declaration or a long-term agreement, has become unavoidable for both the governments of Afghanistan and the United States. It goes without saying that the government of Afghanistan is still almost totally reliant on international assistance both financially and in security issues, with the bulk of the assistance being doled out by non other than the U.S.
The government of President Karzai is well aware of its acute need to have the substantial, long-term support of the United States and also of other international heavyweights such as the Europeans. Taking into view this inescapable reality, the government of Afghanistan, no doubt, would wholeheartedly go to any extent to finally secure the deal. On the other hand, the U.S. also harbors ambitions of a long-term presence in Afghanistan and in the heart of the so-called Eurasian landmass that is fast emerging as the world's new center of political and economic gravity. Securing the deal with the government of Afghanistan would also enable the U.S. to defend against the possibility of Afghanistan sinking yet again into a vacuum with disastrous consequences.
This two-tracked American view of its long-term engagement with Afghanistan is the bedrock of its Afghan policies at present and for many more years to come. The details of the strategic deal remain unclear as of now given the fact that both governments are still working out the modalities. What has so far emerged is that the deal would seek to sustain American aid and assistance to Afghanistan on a long-term footing in exchange for direct access to a number of military bases throughout Afghanistan. Shindand, Mazar-i Sharif, Bagram and Kandahar airbases are among the main military bases that America is now upgrading and expanding.
President Karzai has repeatedly reassured the public that the best interests of Afghanistan will be kept in mind while negotiating the details of the deal with the U.S. This is a welcome statement by the President. The sporadic reports and media leaks also paint a picture of Afghan officials being tough in negotiating the terms of the deal. The highly-respected Foreign Policy magazine quotes a European diplomat familiar with the negotiations as saying that Afghan government is "trying to extract from the West as much as they can now".
The strategic deal with the U.S., whether as a legally-binding declaration or a full-fledged agreement, will serve the best interests of Afghanistan only when it is harmonized with Afghanistan's relations and foreign policy imperatives in its immediate neighborhood involving Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and the Central Asian Republics. This is more so given the regional countries' stiff resistance to any perceived threat from a long-term Western military presence inside Afghanistan. Carefully balancing between pursuing close ties with the U.S. and accommodating the regional expectations of our neighbors constitutes the ultimate test of whether or not this strategic deal will be beneficial in the long run.
The public opinion in Afghanistan seems to be sharply divided over whether such a deal is in the interest of Afghanistan or not. Countless many would jump to cite Japan and some European countries as successful examples of how an American long-term military presence has led to prosperity and security. Such simplistic examples and arguments disregard the very basic fact that Afghanistan is no Japan and no post-war Germany. As said, many of today Afghanistan's unique features, conditions and circumstances would determine the outcome of such a deal and how it will play out in the 2014-2024 (the duration of the purported deal).
What is certain is that Afghanistan needs America's long-term assistance on many fronts, more so in relation to sustaining military pressure on Taliban and other militant groups and providing the massive resources needed to keep the Afghan National Security Forces on high preparation. Afghanistan's economic and political development in 2014-2024 period, being critical areas of concern, also requires America's and international community's broad-based engagement with Afghanistan for many more years. It is left to the imagination and political astuteness of the government of Afghanistan to harness the potential of this long-term deal and successfully balance it against the prevailing regional sensitivities.
According to available reports, one aspect of the deal emphasized by the government of Afghanistan is insistence on channeling of foreign assistance through the government. Some reports maintain that the government has been insisting on 80% of the incoming funds to go to its coffers. This had been raised and agreed to by international donors in Kabul's Conference on Afghanistan held in 2010. What happened afterwards was that many of the same donors who made the pledges subsequently failed to deliver their aid through the government and continued to prefer NGOs, private contractors and the UN agencies.
To be sure, lack of capacity in the government to absorb and spend these large sums is major hindrance in front of foreign donors to make good on their pledges. As widely known, many ministries of the government of Afghanistan have not been able to spend more than half of their development budgets year after year. This continues to bleed international trust and confidence in Afghan government's ability to deliver. The U.K. government announced a few days ago that it "will no longer waste money in Afghanistan". This clearly shows donor governments' impatience with the pace of progress in overcoming Afghanistan's governance challenges. This is certainly one of the controversial points of the strategic deal with the U.S. since the American government cannot pledge on what it sees as impractical.
In such a situation, it is again left to the government of Afghanistan to take effective and credible steps to increase its capacity to take more ownership of its affairs. A state and governance and a government that is still struggling to find its feet certainly weakens Afghanistan's prospects of benefiting handsomely from the long-term strategic deal with the U.S.
In sum, it is not prudent to simply reject out of hand the strategic deal labeling it as subservience to a foreign power. The strategic deal would provide Afghanistan with a range of valuable opportunities, which will be critical for the country's nascent journey on the path of development and progress.