Last week, Afghanistan witnessed an estimated 60 percent of its 12 million eligible voters participate in elections to select a new president, amid threats of Taliban attacks. And while drawing long-term conclusions over any event in Afghanistan is always risky, after 13 years of conflict, this democratic transition of power should be hailed as a major milestone in the country’s history.
Despite the apparent success of this election cycle, the fate of the crucial Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan remains uncertain. If the BSA was left unsigned and Washington’s “zero option” — a total withdrawal of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan— was to materialize, it would leave a substantial political vacuum in the country. The lack of American presence in the country would leave room for geopolitics to take advantage of the fledgling democracy.
As a result, American diplomats need to bargain with presidential frontrunners to ensure the BSA is signed. If the U.S. is unable to convince the future Afghan president, Washington should begin diplomatic talks with Iran, Pakistan, and India to minimize their actions, which carry the potential to unravel any feeble democratic progress that has been made.
Iran — who shares a large and politically unstable Western border with Afghanistan — is a country eager to flex its political muscles in the region and enhance an already-strong historical relationship with Afghanistan.
A Shiite nation, Iran has always felt a responsibility to protect the considerable Shiite population in Afghanistan. During the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, Iran provided support for Persian-speaking Shiite militias. After the Taliban came to power and killed thousands of Shiites, Iran deployed its military along the Afghan border to provide security for fleeing Shiite refugees.
If Iran was to become more politically involved in Afghanistan as a result of the absence of American forces, it could further stoke tensions between a divided Sunni-Shiite population, which has reached some reconciliation in recent years.
The higher profile contest for Afghanistan, however, is between Pakistan and India. Pakistan has long viewed Afghanistan as a strategic asset in its long–running conflict with India. As a result it will attempt to regain prominence within the country, which was minimized under the American occupation. India has attempted to exploit Pakistan’s absence in recent years by investing in infrastructure projects in Kabul, and by providing some training to the Afghan National Army. These political chess moves between Pakistan and India highlight a potentially devastating proxy war between two nuclear powers, which can be avoided if the BSA is signed by the incoming Afghan President.
It is important to note that the BSA was approved by the Afghanistan National Grand Council — Loya Jirga — composed of tribal leaders from all over the country. This sends a strong message to the incoming president that not only is it beneficial for his country, but that it’s what the de facto parliament of his country wants. The alternative would be succumbing to regional powers who would stir more violence in the country. The minimized American presence that is outlined in the BSA would ensure long–term security while maximizing Afghan sovereignty.
The wild card within Afghanistan, however, is the ongoing Taliban insurgency. The militant group has shown mixed signals over the past year that are hard to interpret. The Taliban has launched attacks against soft targets — hotels, commercial centers, and some government facilities — but have shown signs of increasingly weak centralized power.
Some analysts depict these signs as the Taliban waiting until American forces withdraw to launch a massive offensive. More likely it is evidence of the organization’s hindered military capabilities as a result of a population that has grown tired of conflict and no longer views the Taliban as a realistic ally in achieving peace — as was displayed with the massive voter turnout.
Overall, it seems that this past election is evidence that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, but the country certainly has not arrived at a stable destination. Afghanistan is still heavily reliant on American assistance for security, both in terms of financial support and military capabilities. As such, Afghanistan needs the BSA to ensure that its security is maintained to further expand upon the significant steps the country is making toward a functioning democratic society.