A new strategic partnership that commits the U.S. to defend Afghanistan militarily for 10 years after most foreign forces leave in 2014 is intended to signal that the U.S. will not tolerate a resurgent al-Qaida or attacks launched by militants from neighboring Pakistan.
The agreement, parts of which were read out Monday in the Afghan parliament, is big on symbolism but light on substance. It leaves out specifics, including how much funding the U.S. will provide to support Afghan security forces or how many U.S. troops will stay on after the withdrawal deadline.
Afghanistan, for its part, insisted on approving any American military operations after 2014 and barred the U.S. from using its soil to attack other countries, such as neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban, al-Qaida and al-Qaida-linked militants all have staging bases.
"In the end, of course, the U.S. and allied interests differ from those of most Afghans," said Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.
"The United States is most concerned with dismantling al-Qaida, while Afghans are most concerned with what infrastructure and financing the United States and its allies will provide beyond 2014."
After 10 years of U.S.-led war, insurgents linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida remain a threat and as recently as a week ago launched a large-scale attack on the capital, Kabul, and three other cities. Both groups operate from within Afghanistan, as well as from across the border in Pakistan.
It took 18 months of painstaking, often tense negotiations to hammer out the accord, which was reached Sunday and lays out for the first time the relationship the U.S. will have with Afghanistan once the majority of U.S. troops have gone home. It builds on hard-won understandings reached recently on the controversial issues of control over detainees and the conduct of night raids by U.S. special forces.
Exum said the Obama administration had hoped to have the agreement finalized last summer, but Afghan leaders — notably President Hamid Karzai — were reluctant to agree to a continued U.S. military presence beyond 2014.
"The United States and the government of Afghanistan were able to find enough common ground to get an agreement on tough issues such as detainees, basing rights, and the so-called night raids. This is a real diplomatic achievement for the Obama administration," Exum said.
The accord is meant to reassure the Afghan people that the U.S. won't abandon them, to send a warning to the Taliban and to serve notice to Pakistan, which many analysts believe has been waiting for a U.S. withdrawal that would allow the Taliban to reassert power, giving Islamabad strategic control over its neighbor.
There have also been fears that Afghanistan's rival ethnic groups, including those that make up the Northern Alliance that defeated the Pashtun Taliban, would again fight for power and influence. A similar struggle after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 nearly destroyed the country.
"This continued international military presence, however, will hopefully arrest some of the momentum toward another civil war and will also hopefully force Pakistani decision makers to re-examine their own long-standing assumptions about the long-term U.S. and allied commitment to Afghanistan," Exum said.
The Afghan parliament got a first look at the strategic partnership agreement after the country's national security adviser read out portions of it Monday in the lower house. The full agreement has not been made public.
The document — which still has to go through internal reviews and be signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Karzai — commits the U.S. to defend Afghanistan from any outside interference via "diplomatic means, political means, economic means and even military means," national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta told the assembled parliamentarians. He stressed that any such actions would be taken only with Afghan agreement.
The draft was initialed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Spanta on Sunday and is to be signed before a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20-21.
Many Afghans have expressed worries that the U.S. wants permanent bases, a setup that would make it more of an occupying force than an ally. Spanta said that specific decisions about bases will be left to the later deal.
The agreement also addressed the countries' mutual commitment to the stability of Afghanistan and to human rights. It also says that the U.S. has no plans to keep permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
There have been fears that Afghanistan will fall apart after most foreign troops leave and there have been worries about the long-term economic commitment the impoverished nation needs to stay afloat.
Although specific troop numbers and other military details are not included in the agreement, the U.S. has said it expects to keep about 20,000 troops in the country after 2014. They would mentor and train the Afghan National Security Forces while also taking part in counterterrorism operations.
Those details are expected to be included in a bilateral technical agreement to be negotiated over the next year, but the partnership deal is the basis for the long-term relationship between the two countries.
It also sends a strong message to Taliban insurgents that the United States will remain inside the country in support of the fledgling Afghan security forces. More importantly, it tells neighbors such as Pakistan that they have to become more active in finding a peaceful solution to a war that has entered its 11th year.
Most insurgent groups retain safe havens in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas and the United States has for years pressed Islamabad to do something about the militants — who also threaten Pakistan's security.
The only concrete limit the pact puts on the U.S. military is a pledge that the United States will not launch attacks from Afghan soil. Afghan officials have said previously they would not allow their country to be used to launch drone attacks into Pakistan or other neighboring countries after 2014.
The agreement also says the U.S. will continue to fund the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces after 2014. It does not specify amounts, but U.S. officials have said they expect to pay about $4 billion a year, though funding would have to be approved by Congress.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to say how much money the deal would involve. She said the U.S. is speaking with Karzai's government and American allies and partners around the world to ensure that Afghan security forces are "fully funded, that they are fully equipped and that we have the ability to continue to train them."
The agreement also says the U.S. will help support Afghan economic development, health care programs, education and social initiatives, and stresses that the U.S. remains committed to defending human rights and the right of free speech.
Most Afghan politicians said they supported the partnership, which they endorsed last November at an assembly of more than 2,000 tribal elders and dignitaries known as a loya jirga.
Two conditions set at the loya jirga, the end of night raids by international troops and complete Afghan control over detainees, were part of separate agreements signed earlier this month that opened the way to the partnership deal.
"Not only I believe, but everyone believes that this strategic partnership is for the benefit of both countries. Of course it is for the benefit of the United States as well as Afghanistan. In order for Afghanistan to come out from all those challenges that we are facing right now we need a very strong partner, and that is the United States," said Farkhunda Zahra Naderi, a lawmaker from Kabul.
But she added that lawmakers wanted to see the full document.
"At this stage we had the general content, but we are waiting to get the whole document. I believe it is a very good approach that promises a good future for Afghanistan and we are looking forward to it," she said.