The signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US last week, a day after new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s swearing-in, bodes well for Afghanistan and the region. The relationship of Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, with Washington had steadily deteriorated over his refusal to sign the pact. Yet, without the BSA and the parallel pact signed between Kabul and Nato — which will together allow 12,000 foreign troops, including 9,800 from the US, to stay on in Afghanistan for the twin missions of training Afghan security forces and conducting counter-terror operations — the safety of Afghan citizens as well as the security and survival of the Afghan state would be at risk. Both Ghani and his erstwhile presidential rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who is now chief executive, had promised to sign the agreement. But even as their respective camps bickered over the disputed run-off, the Taliban gained ground in several parts of the country.
The two pacts are directly tied to the continuity of aid worth billions of dollars to Afghanistan and the residual force that will be left behind is a fraction of the Nato troop strength at the peak of the war. The remaining 9,800 US troops will be cut in half by end-2015, preceding a full pull-out by end-2016. While the pacts are welcome, they also carry a message that time is not on the side of either Ghani or US President Barack Obama. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s warning at an interaction at the Council on Foreign Relations during his recent visit to the US, that Washington must not repeat its mistake in Iraq, pointed in the same direction. India, which has invested heavily in Afghanistan’s reconstruction, has reason to fear the extended impact of a resurgent Taliban and a vulnerable Kabul on the subcontinent, given that Pakistan’s attempts to destabilise its northern neighbour for its own strategic gain are unlikely to cease.
The onus of running and securing Afghanistan rests with Ghani and his government, the long-term survival of which remains in doubt. After the Taliban, the economy is the greatest threat to Afghan political stability. As a former World Bank economist, Ghani knows his job. The question is whether he will have the latitude to do it.