As the timeline for the drawdown of U.S. and international troops from Afghanistan approaches, the United States and Afghanistan are working to finalize a long-term security arrangement that would secure a limited U.S. troop presence in the country beyond 2014. But the United States and Afghanistan disagree on several points (AP), starting with how binding the agreement should be. Taj Ayubi, a minister-counselor to Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, says as U.S. public opinion for the war in Afghanistan wanes amid an economic downturn and rising unemployment, Afghans grow increasingly concerned about Washington's long-term commitment to the country. Ayubi, who accused some in the Afghan government of sabotaging the strategic pact under discussion with Washington in a speech he delivered at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, says the majority of Afghans support a U.S. military base in the country post-2014.
There is a lot of distrust in the U.S.-Afghan relationship, and corruption looms large as a concern among lawmakers in Congress. Where do you think this relationship stands at present, and what can the two sides do to improve it?
Both sides are trying very hard to mend relations. Actually, the relations are not bad; it's just that in the last few years we were not able to coordinate as much as we should have. We have come to a stage where the transition of authority is taking place, so we are rushing into things. That's why there are little aberrations occurring in our relations.
What is Afghanistan doing to mend relations?
The Afghan government and the United States have assigned their national security advisors to continue talks and come up with some solutions. Perhaps in the next two to three months, we'll have some definite answers to those questions.
What steps is the Afghan government taking to tackle corruption?
The Afghan government has assigned two anti-corruption organizations: the major crimes task force and the attorney general's office. So, there are a number of commissions and organizations that are going to go into that. At least twenty to thirty corrupt officials and judges and some governors [have been] arrested.
Do you have any concerns on the prosecution of the war and how it's faring?
We always have concerns. But from a tactical point of view, we have made many inroads; we have weakened the main body of the enemy. They have been reduced in many parts. For instance, at one time you could not drive from Lashkar Gah to Kandahar [both in southern Afghanistan and approximately eighty-seven miles apart]. Now, you can do that and with a lot of comfort. That means the [insurgents] have been reduced. They cannot hold any place; they cannot take any place. They have to just suffice by hitting soft targets.They have even attacked civilians at places of worship.
If we have to make peace, it has to come from a position of strength, which means that the United States should be strong in Afghanistan. The United States can be strong only when [Afghanistan] signs a strategic partnership with the United States.
What concerns does the Afghan government have with how Pakistan is tackling terrorism? And what do you see as their role in the reconciliation talks with the Taliban?
Pakistan is going to be a very, very important factor in the talks regarding reconciliation; Afghanistan understands that, and Pakistan also understands that. The United States and our other partners [also understand]. Pakistan has to be on board on these talks, and together we can gradually come to some type of understanding.
A recent report by the Associated Press accuses the Afghan government of scuttling the U.S.-Taliban talks due to fears of President Karzai's authority being undermined by a Washington-brokered deal. Clearly there seems to be a lot of confusion regarding the reconciliation talks and between the different parties involved.
The talks have just begun in the last three months. There have been talks between some Afghan sources and some Taliban sources. If we have to make peace, it has to come from a position of strength, which means that the United States should be strong in Afghanistan. The United States can be strong only when [Afghanistan] signs a strategic partnership with the United States. Also, the Afghan people want basing rights for the United States. Once that happens, and people see that the United States is here to stay in Afghanistan, much of this confusion will just fizzle out.
What is the status of negotiations for the strategic partnership agreement? Are there sticking points between the two parties?
We had the initial agreement from the United States in 2004, and both sides have expressed a desire to renew that. The Afghans have been asking for a binding relationship with the United States. The United States has been a little wary about that. Perhaps it has to go through a lot of political [troubles] in Washington. So, they're not as prepared for that yet. Also, the Afghans have to prepare politically for such a big agreement with the United States, especially for basing rights.
Is there enough support for a U.S. military base inside Afghanistan beyond 2014?
I'll tell you with confidence, 85 percent support the United States to stay in Afghanistan long term.
The Afghans have been asking for a binding relationship with the United States. The United States has been a little wary about that.
The Afghan government has expressed displeasure over the night raids conducted by U.S. forces. Is that something you are addressing with the United States in the strategic partnership agreement?
Yes, with the transition processes going on right now between Afghanistan, NATO, and the United States, those issues will also be addressed. [The Afghan government wants] more Afghans at the forefront [of the night raids], and the foreign troops would be behind them. [Foreign troops] are not going to go directly and blast Afghan doors and do all those things at night.
Given the economic realities in the United States, are there concerns in the Afghan government and among the public that the United States might abandon them following the withdrawal in 2014?
Yes, there is concern and fear in the Afghan public. In the last three months, since the talks about the strategic partnership have been delayed a bit, so many businesses and people have just put a hold on their businesses and there is a little slump in real estate sales in Afghanistan. Once those [strategic partnership agreement] issues are resolved, things will pick up again. I don't think that people have too many concerns that the United States will abandon them, because the United States has been giving assurances, over and over again.
Are there specific issues within the agreement that they don't agree on?
Yes, for instance [Afghans think] that it should be binding, and also that it should be ratified by the Senate of the United States. I think the U.S. government has to do some political work. Afghans have to do the same.