Dangers of the zero option

With no security agreement,instability in Afghanistan could spread across the region.

Published: December 12, 2013 3:24:16 am

Rick ‘Ozzie’ Nelson

With no security agreement,instability in Afghanistan could spread across the region.

Last month,the United States and Afghanistan appeared to be on the verge of concluding a bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would facilitate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by 2015,while enabling a small contingent of US military forces to remain in the country to assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). However,Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai — set to visit India this week — has jeopardised the plan by refusing to sign the agreement until after the Afghan presidential elections in April 2014 and by asking for additional concessions from the US. The US has reportedly expressed the hope that India will persuade Afghanistan to sign the BSA.

Under the terms of the BSA — which was nearly finalised in November during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Kabul — the US would gradually withdraw almost all of its troops from Afghanistan by 2015,but would keep a limited number of military personnel till 2024 to train,equip and assist the ANSF. The Afghan government would provide legal protection for the US forces. This would facilitate a gradual and controlled transition of power to the ANSF,which would take on an increasingly independent role in military,security,and counter-terrorism operations.

Without a signed BSA,however,the US would lack the security and legal guarantees that would allow for a continued US military presence and the Obama administration will be forced to remove all US forces from Afghanistan — which has been dubbed the “zero option”.

While markedly improved,the ANSF still lacks the capability to maintain security without international assistance. In 2013,it received $5.1 billion in training and equipment from the US. Although international military organisations like Nato and other countries,such as South Korea,also provide support to the ANSF,it is doubtful that they could match the level of American support and would probably leave Afghanistan. Should this occur,it would be extremely difficult for the ANSF to keep up the necessary pressure on the Taliban or even maintain security in general. This would result in rising levels of violence,which would almost certainly reduce the Afghan government’s already limited ability to maintain its legitimacy beyond Kabul. In the long term,the combination of violence and lawlessness could result in another civil war with its effect spilling into neighbouring countries.

Increased instability would also jeopardise Afghanistan’s social and economic development. Since 2001,Afghanistan’s GDP has grown nearly 10 per cent annually. But its economy is dependent on international assistance and the presence of coalition forces. The withdrawal of most coalition forces in 2014 will certainly dampen economic growth,but the removal of nearly all of them under the “zero option” would compound Afghanistan’s economic woes. A deteriorating security situation could also cause international aid organisations,who have helped distribute more than $60 billion in international assistance since 2002 and improved Afghans’ access to basic services such as electricity and healthcare,to withdraw their workers and,potentially,funding.

Eroding security is likely to lead to a cascading decrease in the quality of life for many Afghans,largely because of a decay in social services. For instance,the government would find it difficult to maintain programmes that support agricultural workers. Should these workers become further disenfranchised,it could provide the Taliban or other extremist elements with a substantial recruiting pool. Basic services such as education and fundamental rights such as equality would be dramatically curtailed or eliminated if the Taliban recovers and re-establishes areas of dominance.

From a global perspective,the absence of a security agreement between Afghanistan and the US would also affect the security of bordering nations. Lawlessness or civil war could result in migrations to other areas of the country or region,creating an international refugee crisis. Second- and third-order consequences could reverberate across Central and South Asia. A rise in instability in Afghanistan would give regional extremist groups a fresh wave of autonomy to conduct attacks not only in Afghanistan,but also in Pakistan and potentially even India. Without US or coalition forces on the ground to fight alongside their ANSF peers,these extremist groups will be able to take advantage of weaker security forces to establish bases to plan and conduct attacks.

Sayed Ishaq Gailani,a member of the Afghan parliament ominously predicted to The New York Times that if Afghanistan did not sign the BSA,“things will get worse than Iraq and the 1990s Afghan civil war”. To protect the Afghan people,the US and Afghanistan must conclude a bilateral security agreement.

The writer is a senior associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies,Washington DC,where he directed the homeland security and counter-terrorism programme from 2009 through 2012


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