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How Will Obama-Karzai Pact Affect Afghans’ Future?

May 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez, former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Jalali and The Atlantic's Steven Clemons discuss how the new pact between Presidents Karzai and Obama is expected to affect everyday life in Afghanistan and relations between the two countries.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now two views on the agreement signed last night from Ali Jalali, Afghanistan’s interior minister from 2003 to 2005. He’s now at National Defense University here in Washington. And Steven Clemons, editor at large at The Atlantic and senior fellow and founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

Well, gentlemen, there’s been a lot of talk about what the United States promised in the documents signed with the Afghans.

Steven Clemons, what are the big to-do items that the Afghans are now obliged to do?

STEVEN CLEMONS, New America Foundation: Well, I think the Afghans are obliged to do things that I regretfully say I think they can’t.

What we hope that they will do is continue to build an inclusive civil society, a democracy that respects human rights, women’s rights, that stamps out corruption and begins to deliver a better way of life for the nation as a whole. That’s the goal and objective.

And I think that there are efforts under way to do that. What we’re likely to see is something that is a much more minimalist version of that, where opportunity is centered around Kabul, where a shrunken U.S. military force essentially acts as a deterrent to an overthrow of that government, but you basically lose control of much of the rest of the government.

And as American forces draw down, the infusion of cash into that economy also dwindles. So that means security forces come down, and the whole dynamic in Afghanistan becomes much messier. And so we’re likely to see a messy future, while having the expectation of a more robust and balanced civil society.

RAY SUAREZ: There are specific promises in the document of, Ali Jalali, about protecting the rights of women, about suppressing corruption while building government institutions. Do you share Steven Clemons’ pessimism that your government can do this?

ALI JALALI, former Afghan Interior minister: Well, there’s one thing that — of course, I agree with him that protection of human rights and also a government that’s accountable and transparent and also inclusive, that is the key to stability in Afghanistan.

No matter — no amount of foreign troops or foreign money is going to stabilize the country unless there is a government that the people can trust. This is — however, in the past 10 years, I think the Afghan society has changed. I think there is a lot of support for the respect of human rights and also women’s rights.

I don’t think the country will go back to the days that the Taliban were actually violating all kinds of rights of men and women. So, therefore, I am optimistic that, as far as the people are concerned, I think the Afghans can make choices. They are not going to go back to that era.

However, it all depends on the security situation, and also on the capacity of the government that can protect the population, provide security and the rule of law. And that can be possible only if the government can control its territory.

RAY SUAREZ: Steven Clemons.

STEVEN CLEMONS: I mean, I would just say one key thing.

I visited the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul. This is a time with a large-scale U.S. stewardship of the Afghan situation, $120 billion a year going in. And that ministry had almost no resources to do anything in what you would consider to be the best of circumstances.

So, when you draw down the forces and you draw down the money, it’s very hard for me to see, particularly as the power dynamics in the rest of the country shift to an ascendancy again of warlords in certain areas, as partners with the U.S. government, or perhaps partners of other players, that, in that situation, I think we need to have a realistic lens.

And I have been actually proposing that we need to find ways in anticipation of this to bring Afghans’ best and most talented women into the areas that we will be able to protect to give them opportunities that they won’t be able to have in other parts of the country outside of Kabul.

RAY SUAREZ: Partner was a word that the president used last night as well. He said, “With this agreement, the Afghan people and the world should know that Afghanistan has a friend and partner in the U.S.”

Would President Karzai say the same thing to his people about the United States?

ALI JALALI: I think he always say that that is a partnership.

Partnership means that both sides in a partnership should do their commitments or actually honor their commitments. So this partnership agreement, with all the vagueness that it has, it sends a very strong message to Taliban and to their supporters in the region that transition doesn’t mean abandonment of Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: One specific point in the document says that the United States won’t launch attacks on third-party countries from Afghan soil on other places.

Would this make now illegal the United States’ pursuit of terrorists, for instance, over the border in Pakistan?

ALI JALALI: Well, it can be interpreted in different ways.

One way is that, yes, Afghanistan and also its neighbors actually want the presence of international forces to — not to threaten other — the neighbors, or Afghanistan’s territory shouldn’t be used against the neighboring countries.

However, the using of putting — the attacks by drones against Taliban or against the al-Qaida-affiliated groups is not a country, probably, it can be — al-Qaida is not a country.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think that that’s the kind of thing, Steven Clemons, that may trip this agreement up in the future?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Oh, I think there are many things. There is not a status of forces agreement. Of course, it was a status of forces agreement that tripped up U.S. forces remaining in Iraq and the inability to get anyone there.

I think Ali Jalali is a declared candidate for president in the next election. And I think it’s going to be interesting to watch these various candidates run and whether they will support or not a status of forces agreement with the United States, because it could become a measure of how Afghans look at their legitimacy and what will eventually be some sorting out over whether the U.S. role in Afghanistan was helpful or hurtful.

But it could become a test of legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan citizens, just as it was in Iraq. If that doesn’t happen, U.S. forces will not stay in Afghanistan after 2014.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the common Afghans in the streets, in the marketplaces, in the fields as tired of war as President Obama says Americans are? Don’t they want to see this end?

ALI JALALI: Afghans are tired of war. There’s no doubt about it.

At the same time, Afghans do not want to go to the past and to have peace at any cost. So, therefore, they — the majority of people of Afghanistan look forward to this partnership with the United States that can at least guarantee the continued international support — support to Afghanistan in terms of security, economic development, and also regional cooperation, and so on and so forth.

However, as we discussed earlier, that all these other issues, the interpretation of partnership, is going to be defined in the status of forces agreement. And that’s the difficult part, because, in Afghanistan, with the — what happened just recently with the killing of civilians in Kandahar and other issues, people are questioning whether the foreign troops should be subject to their own laws or Afghanistan law.

This is going to be a sticking point in the strategic — I mean, the SOFA agreement, and that actually was deal-breaking in Iraq, as you said.

RAY SUAREZ: Ali Jalali, Steven Clemons, thank you both.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Ray, thank you.