President Barack Obama has promised not to attack Pakistan-based al-Qaida leaders or fighters from bases inside Afghanistan.
The surprising commitment effectively bars Obama and his successors from launching another nighttime helicopter raid like the one that that killed Osama bin Laden. That raid has proven to be Obama’s primary foreign-policy success because it killed bin Laden, scooped up much intelligence data and shocked Pakistan.
Obama’s commitment will also end the use of secretive drone-attacks from Afghanistan. Those attacks have killed hundreds of al-Qaida leaders since the mid-2000s. They’ve also been very popular with U.S voters, and usually have had tacit Pakistan approval.
The unadvertised provision is buried in the deal that Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Obama signed with much campaign-style fanfare May 1 in Kabul. It could provide a legal shield for Pakistani-based al-Qaida’s leaders, front-line fighters, terrorism-planners, allied terror-leaders, funders, terror bases and terror training-grounds.
“The United States further pledges not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries,” says the provision, found in paragraph 6b of the eight-page deal.
The deal was signed on the one-year anniversary of the bin Laden raid.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaida had a network of leaders and training centers in Afghanistan, from where they trained and dispatched the 19 terrorists who killed 2,996 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. The remnant of that infrastructure is in Pakistan and Yemen following years of attacks by U.S. forces.
Some U.S. officials — but not the U.S. government — say Pakistani government agencies fund, train and protect several militant Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan. For example, U.S. prosecutors say the November 2011 attacks on a hotel and a Jewish center in Mumbai, India, were prepared and directed from Pakistan. That attack killed 164 people.
Even though Al-Qaida wants to overthrow the Afghan government, Karzai likely signed the safe harbor deal to minimize conflicts with neighboring Pakistan and Iran, said Elliot Cohen, a national-security professor at John Hopkins University’s D.C.-based school of advanced international studies.
“Karzai probably asked [for the clause], perhaps at the behest of Pakistan,” Cohen said. But its inclusion “is baffling,” he said.
Pakistan’s government vigorously objected to the May 2011 bin Laden raid.
The raid embarrassed its military and intelligence agencies, both of which claimed not to know that bin Laden’s hideout was a short distance from their primary officer-training school.
If Obama pushed for the clause, Karzai likely would not have objected, Cohen said. “We’ve made it clear we’re headed for the exits, so why [upset the neighbors],” he said.
Media reports say that the U.S. agencies have also launched multiple secret short-range raids and strikes against terror bases on the Pakistani side of the Pakistan-Afghan border. Obama’s new deal would also presumably stop those short-range raids into Pakistan.
Once Obama leaves power, U.S. lawyers may try to argue their way past the section. For example, they might argue that attack on a jihadi base in Pakistan is not an attack on the country, but an attack on jihadis.
Also, the deal does not bar the United States from attacking jihadi targets in Pakistan with missiles launched from aircraft, ships or submarines in the Indian Ocean. However, those raids could be considered a more blatant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty than secretive short-range raids launched from U.S. bases in the Afghan mountains.
The May 1 deal is titled “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement Between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” Its main provision says U.S combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
However, the “enduring” part of the agreement is vague. It consists of a section that says the White House will ask Congress to send some aid to Afghanistan each year.
The deal does allow a small force of U.S. commandos to stay in Afghanistan, at the approval of future Afghan governments. Karzai is slated to retire in 2014.
Those remaining commando forces would be tasked to attacking al-Qaida groups inside Afghanistan.
However, Obama and his deputies have indicated they would not necessarily oppose a role for al-Qaida’s main ally, the Taliban, in the Afghan government. If the Taliban is part of the Afghan government, it likely would veto any U.S. raids on al-Qaida in Afghanistan or in Pakistan.