(CNSNews.com) – NATO defense ministers began two days of talks in Brussels on Wednesday, frustrated by yet another unmet target date for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement pivotal to any ongoing foreign troop presence in the country beyond year’s end.
Signing of the BSA is a prerequisite for the concluding of a separate status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and NATO. Its member states had hoped for clarity before this week’s Brussels meeting, but the ministers will now discuss “the way forward in Afghanistan” without knowing whether the Alliance will in fact have a future role there.
On the eve of the meeting, President Obama, in a phone conversation with Karzai, effectively conceded that the mercurial Afghan leader will not sign the BSA before he leaves office after April elections; advised him that the U.S. was now preparing for a full troop withdrawal by the end of 2014; but also left open the possibility of signing the document “later this year” – that is, with Karzai’s successor – thereby allowing a proposed post-2014 counter-terror and training mission to proceed.
“However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission,” the White House said in a summary of the phone call. “Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.”
The BSA, designed to govern the presence of any U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the Dec. 31 end of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission, was drawn up over many months of often difficult negotiations, and approved by a gathering of tribal elders last November.
When Karzai then balked at signing it, U.S. officials initially insisted that he do so by the end of 2013, but when he stuck to his guns they retreated from a firm deadline.
During a visit to Kabul on Dec. 9, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel backed away from the end-of-December demand, but when asked if there would be a final cutoff date, he suggested that the election would be too late, pointing instead to the NATO ministerial.
“The election is scheduled for April 5,” he said. “If there is a runoff, which is very likely, which means that it’s extended for a couple months at best before a new president is elected. Now you’re well in to mid-2014.”
“There will be at some point here a cutoff point,” Hagel continued. “And I’m not prepared to give a date on that. But I would say that one of the things you might want to look at is the NATO defense ministers’ ministerial meeting at the end of February. And some answer’s going to be required at that NATO ministerial.”
Two days later White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that although the BSA should be signed by the end of the year, it would “probably not” be a big problem if that was delayed into January.
January came and went, and now the NATO meeting has arrived, with no progress.
NATO in December began negotiating a separate status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Afghanistan, covering an envisaged mission to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan military and police after 2014.
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen made it clear at the time, however, that the SOFA would not be finalized before the BSA has been signed.
‘A prudent step’
Hagel said in a statement Tuesday that he strongly supported the decision to “move ahead with additional contingency planning to ensure adequate plans are in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014.”
“This is a prudent step given that President Karzai has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would provide DoD personnel with critical protections and authorities after 2014.”
At the same time, Hagel said the Pentagon will “continue planning for U.S. participation in a NATO-led mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan security forces, as well as a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission.”
Apart from his refusal to sign the BSA, Karzai has also upset many in the U.S. with a series of provocative statements, and actions like the recent release of prisoners regarded by the U.S. military as dangerous militants and killers.
Some U.S. lawmakers have been pressing the administration to state publicly that it would be better off waiting until Karzai has gone.
“President Karzai has so far refused to sign the BSA he agreed to, and has made a series of statements so inflammatory that they are undermining public support in the U.S. for continuing any efforts in Afghanistan,” Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at the opening of a committee hearing on national security threats two weeks ago.
“Whoever the next Afghan president is, he is likely to be more reliable than President Karzai, and his signature is likely to instill more confidence than would Karzai’s signature,” he added.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, testifying before the panel, became the first administration official to express doubt publicly that Karzai would sign the BSA before stepping down.
“My own view on this, though it may not be company policy, is I don’t believe President Karzai will sign this,” he said.
While Tuesday’s White House statement was viewed as a negotiating ploy to put pressure on Karzai and his successor, Afghan officials need only look as far as Iraq to see what a “zero option” – the complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops – could mean.
In 2011 the U.S. and Iraq held talks about retaining a number of U.S. troops in that country beyond the Dec. 31, 2011 withdrawal deadline, but the negotiations broke down over an issue that has also caused difficulties in the Afghanistan talks – legal jurisdiction for U.S. personnel – and plans for an ongoing training and counterterrorism force were abandoned.
Iraq has since then witnessed a serious escalation in sectarian violence and a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Anbar province, boosted by the civil war in neighboring Syria.