Barack Obama arriving in Afghanistan on his May 1 trip to sign a new
strategic accord with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (White House photo
by Pete Souza)
The optics surrounding the Barack Obama administration's "Enduring
Strategic Partnership" agreement with Afghanistan and the Memorandums of
Understanding accompanying it emphasize transition to Afghan
responsibility and an end to U.S. war.
But the only substantive agreement reached between the U.S. and
Afghanistan -- well hidden in the agreements -- has been to allow powerful
U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) to continue to carry out the
unilateral night raids on private homes that are universally hated in
the Pashtun zones of Afghanistan.
The presentation of the new agreement on a surprise trip by President
Obama to Afghanistan, with a prime-time presidential address and
repeated briefings for the press, allows Obama to go into a tight
presidential election campaign on a platform of ending an unpopular U.S.
war in Afghanistan.
It also allows President Hamid Karzai to claim he has gotten control
over the SOF night raids while getting a 10-year commitment of U.S.
economic support. But the actual text of the agreement and of the
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on night raids included in it by
reference will not end the U.S. war in Afghanistan, nor will they give
Karzai control over night raids.
The Obama administration's success in obscuring those facts is the
real story behind the ostensible story of the agreement. Obama's
decisions on how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan in 2014 and
beyond and what their mission will be will only be made in a "Bilateral
Security Agreement" still to be negotiated.
Although the senior officials did not provide any specific
information about those negotiations in their briefings for news media,
the Strategic Partnership text specifies that they are to begin the
signing of the present agreement "with the goal of concluding within one
That means Obama does not have to announce any decisions about
stationing U.S. forces in Afghanistan before the 2012 presidential
election, allowing him to emphasize that he is getting out of Afghanistan and sidestep the question of a long-term commitment of troops in Afghanistan.
The Bilateral Security Agreement will supersede the 2003 "Status of
Forces" agreement with Afghanistan, according to the text. That
agreement gives U.S. troops in Afghanistan immunity from prosecution and
imposes no limitations on U.S. forces in regard to military bases or
Last month's Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on night raids was
forced on the United States by Karzai's repeated threat to refuse to
sign a partnership agreement unless the United States gave his
government control over any raids on people's homes. Karzai's insistence
on ending U.S. unilateral night raids and detention of Afghans had held
up the agreement on Strategic Partnership for months.
But Karzai's demand put him in direct conflict with the interests of
one of the most influential elements of the U.S. military: the SOF.
Under Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. war
strategy in Afghanistan came to depend heavily on the purported
effectiveness of night raids carried out by SOF units in weakening the
CENTCOM officials refused to go along with ending the night raids or
giving the Afghan government control over them, as IPS reported last
February. The two sides tried for weeks to craft an agreement that
Karzai could cite as meeting his demand but that would actually change
In the end, however, it was Karzai who had to give in. What was done
to disguise that fact represents a new level of ingenuity in
misrepresenting the actual significance of an international agreement
involving U.S. military operations.
The MOU was covered by cable news as a sea change in the conduct of
military operations. CNN, for example, called it a "landmark deal" that
"affords Afghan authorities an effective veto over controversial special operations raids." But a closer reading of the text of the MOU,
as well as comments on by U.S. military officials, indicate that it
represents little, if any, substantive change from the status quo.
The agreement was negotiated between the U.S. military command in
Kabul and Afghan Ministry of Defence, and lawyers for the U.S. military
introduced a key provision that fundamentally changed the significance of the rest of the text.
In the first paragraph under the definition of terms, the MOU says,
"For the purpose of this Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), special
operations are operations approved by the Afghan Operational
Coordination Group (OCG) and conducted by Afghan Forces with support
from U.S. Forces in accordance with Afghan laws."