In recent days, U.S. officials have admitted that negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a bilateral security agreement (BSA) continue to make little progress.
Washington's ambassador to Kabul has reportedly concluded that Karzai is unlikely to sign an accord before the elections this spring - and yet the Obama administration, after allowing earlier deadlines to lapse, is now insisting that any agreement needs to be in place “in weeks, not months.”
Such talk increases the possibility that Washington - and, most likely, its NATO allies - will be unable to leave a residual troop presence in Afghanistan after international forces leave at the end of this year. It's a prospect that arouses anxiety from Washington to New Delhi and many places in between - and likely in Kabul as well.
Such concern is understandable. But let's keep things in perspective: The stabilising role of a post-2014 force - and its overall utility - would be modest at best.
This noncombat force would be expected to build on on-going efforts to strengthen Afghanistan's war-fighting capacities so that Afghan troops can keep a lid on the Taliban insurgency - which is now largely restricted to Afghanistan's southern and eastern regions - and eventually eliminate it altogether.
Fair enough - but let's not overstate the capacities of a residual force. NATO officials suggest it would number at the very most 12,000 troops (most of which would be American). This is a mere fraction of the 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan at the height of the surge. Such a modest force would be powerless to address the range of factors that could hasten Afghanistan's descent into deeper violence - from Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan that Islamabad refuses to eliminate, to fragile Afghan security forces vulnerable to militant infiltration.
This modest residual force would also be powerless to avert a worst-case scenario: An intensified insurgency; heavy refugee flows and other spill over effects into the tinderbox nation of Pakistan; and, most ominously, a ratcheting up of India-Pakistan tensions as the nuclear-armed nemeses try to deepen their influence in Afghanistan, and as anti-India fighers active in Afghanistan (such as Lashkar-e-Taiba) turn their guns back on India.
Such scary scenarios certainly aren't inevitable. But a post-2014 force could neither prevent Afghanistan from falling into this abyss, nor save it if it takes this plunge.
The limitations of a post-2014 force highlight a discomfiting fact - one that Pentagon analysts and Washington think-tankers should be mindful of in the months ahead as they devise possible post-2014 scenarios, identify those most desirable for U.S. interests, and consider how to obtain such wanted outcomes. In effect, the U.S. can deliberate and plan all it likes, but ultimately it can do very little to shape Afghanistan's post-drawdown fate.
Afghanistan's future will largely be determined by domestic political considerations in South Asia that the U.S. has little ability - or desire - to influence. For example, the Taliban insurgency's trajectory will hinge to a great extent on Afghanistan's upcoming elections and resulting new leadership. Only a legitimately elected government that properly administers justice, effectively delivers basic services, and above all is seen as clean, will convince Afghans that their government is a better alternative to the Taliban - and consequently slow recruitment to the insurgents' cause.
Additionally, the insurgency thrives because it enjoys sanctuaries inside Pakistan, which regards the Taliban as a hedge against Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan will dismantle Taliban havens on its soil only if the Pakistani military softens its view of India as an existential threat - a view that has long justified the institution's outsize role in Pakistani politics, and most likely will not change anytime soon.
At the end of the day, Washington has relatively limited leverage in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), despite ample military and economic assistance - aid that would continue under a BSA. It's New Delhi that's earned the trust of Kabul (the two signed a strategic partnership accord in 2011) and the Afghan opposition. And it's Islamabad that enjoys influence over the Taliban.
In an ideal world, Washington would simply defer to those actors with actual leverage in Afghanistan. The problem is that some of them, like Pakistan - whose security establishment has sponsored militants that target U.S. troops in Afghanistan - pursue interests that are inimical to the U.S.
However, there is one objective for Afghanistan that the U.S. and South Asian governments do share in common: stability. Some may therefore argue that the U.S. should aggressively seek to relaunch the fledgling peace process that collapsed last year. According to this line of reasoning, Washington should lean on Afghanistan's neighbours to use their leverage to bring reluctant, yet critical, factions to the negotiating table. Islamabad would target the Taliban, and New Delhi would help Kabul court the anti-Taliban, non-Pashtun Afghan opposition. If successful, so the narrative would conclude, this could pave the way for something approximating a best-case scenario: An end to the Taliban insurgency, greater economic development, and democratic consolidation.
But here's the problem. Given the Taliban's lack of commitment to talks, Islamabad's poor relations with both Kabul and New Delhi, and the acrimony between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the White House (not to mention a recent rash of killings of Afghan Taliban leaders reportedly exploring talks), launching - much less successfully concluding - peace talks will be a very difficult task.
Ultimately, BSA or not, Washington can only cross its fingers and hope that Afghanistan doesn't fall apart - a fitting act for a superpower with little influence over the country where it has fought its longest war.