Mistrust And Miscommunication Stand In The Way Of Afghan Deal

Jan 14, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 6:33 pm
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The U.S. and Afghanistan are locked in a standoff over a security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014. That's when the NATO mission there ends. Analysts say part of the reason the two countries can't close the deal is because they just don't understand each other.

NPR's Sean Carberry reports from Kabul.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The debate over the draft security agreement continues to dominate the Afghan media. Afghan officials keep repeating in the press that the U.S. must meet Karzai's preconditions before he will sign the accord. He wants American forces to stop all raids on Afghan homes and for the U.S. to jumpstart peace talks with the Taliban.

U.S. officials have said they are done negotiating. And if Karzai doesn't sign the agreement within weeks, then the U.S. will have to resort to the zero option, which means withdrawing all troops by the end of this year and possibly cutting off future military support.

WALIULLAH RAHMANI: Now it is more of public diplomacy through which they are trying to reach out to President Karzai, and trying to put an understanding that, really, the U.S. could consider one of these options.

CARBERRY: As political analyst Waliullah Rahmani sees it, the U.S. is using a variety of tactics to pressure Karzai.

RAHMANI: None of our senior leadership takes those pressure tactics serious.

CARBERRY: Rahmani says that Karzai's inner circle simply doesn't believe that the U.S. will leave Afghanistan, and therefore they're ignoring all the public threats over the zero option. Rahmani says that's a mistake. He and other analysts say the two governments still don't understand each other's politics or how to talk to each other.

CANDACE RONDEAUX: Most counselors would probably say the first step to recovery is to acknowledge that there's a problem.

CARBERRY: Candace Rondeaux is a political analyst based at Princeton. She spent five years in Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group. She says that communications have broken down to the point neither government is really sure what the other one wants anymore. Part of the problem, Rondeaux says, is that Washington conducts too much diplomacy through the media. And she says Karzai gets bad advice from his inner circle.

RONDEAUX: They've always had, I think, difficulty within the Karzai administration comprehending the complexities of issues like the NATO alliance system. They haven't really fully understood congressional processes.

CARBERRY: As a result, she says, Karzai is gambling Afghanistan's future without understanding what cards Washington is holding.

Afghan National Security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta has been holding talks with U.S. officials in hopes of finding a way through the stalemate. But he says the atmosphere in recent weeks has worsened with things like the assertion in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' book that the U.S. tried to engineer the defeat of Karzai in the 2009 election. Spanta says Afghans like him have long known this. But the Gates book is reopening an old wound.

RANGIN DADFAR SPANTA: This is impacting, this still, the suspicion that Afghan leadership has towards the U.S. politic in Afghanistan.

CARBERRY: The trust deficit grew in recent weeks when the Afghan government announced it was going to release 72 detainees the U.S. contends are dangerous criminals. Spanta says that even though it looks like it, the detainee controversy is not a tactic by Kabul to pressure the U.S. over the security pact.

SPANTA: The timing, from my point of view, was not helpful for our bilateral relation.

CARBERRY: Still, Spanta expresses optimism that back-channel diplomacy outside the media spotlight will break the impasse. And he made a point to mention that the next visitor to his office would be the U.S. ambassador.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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