The past month's negative developments in Afghanistan -- Quran burnings, misconduct by U.S. soldiers, sophisticated insurgent attacks, and stagnant talks with the Taliban - have overshadowed a recent notable positive development in U.S.-Afghan relations: The imminent conclusion of the strategic partnership agreement that pledges U.S. support for 10 years after the withdrawal of most of its troops and establish ground rules for the future of security cooperation between the two countries.
The two principal sticking points -- night raids and U.S.-run prisons -- have now been resolved. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration will soon brief Congress on the agreement and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will seek the approval of his Parliament. Barring a last-minute glitch, the agreement will be signed before or during the NATO summit in Chicago next month.
The agreement designates Afghanistan as a "major non-NATO ally," making the country eligible for a variety of defense-related benefits vis-à-vis the US. The US will guarantee financial support for sustaining Afghan security forces while guaranteeing Afghanistan's security indefinitely. In exchange, Afghanistan will permit a U.S. military presence to remain in the country after 2014.
What that post-2014 presence will look like remains unclear. Most likely, the follow-on force will be comprised largely of Special Forces conducting counterterrorism operations. In the 12-month period following the signing of the agreement, U.S. and Afghan negotiators will try to address questions regarding the number of troops that will be allowed to stay, the type of missions they will pursue, and the legal immunity they will enjoy.
These negotiations could prove difficult. It was the issue of legal immunity for U.S. forces that ultimately derailed an agreement on keeping an American military presence in Iraq. Hostile Afghans and outside powers will try to use the negotiations to scuttle a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan as well.
Luckily, the political circumstances in Afghanistan are more favorable. Unlike Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his top officials, Karzai and most other Afghan leaders understand that the Afghan government will need to depend on U.S. military assistance for at least another decade. Notwithstanding his election-year rhetoric, Obama appears more interested in retaining a significant force in Afghanistan than he was in Iraq. Bases in Afghanistan are critical to targeting the al Qaeda leadership, which, while weakened, still operates from sanctuaries close to Afghan territory in Pakistan.
Besides laying the groundwork for a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, the agreement is potentially important for three reasons:
First, by resolving some of the most contentious issues in the U.S.-Afghan
relationship, the agreement provides an opportunity for Obama and Karzai to
reset relations and focus on building an enduring partnership between their
countries. Relations between the two administrations have been in a state of
crisis for the past three years. In recent weeks, the political distrust has
seeped to the military-military level, culminating in the killing of several
U.S. officers and soldiers at the hands of their Afghan colleagues. Popular
support in the U.S. for the mission in Afghanistan has fallen to the lowest levels since
While several weeks of bad news was bound to decrease public support, Obama has exacerbated the problem. It has been more than a year since the president addressed the American people on the topic of Afghanistan -- a missed opportunity to explain the importance of the mission and highlight the very real progress that the coalition is making. Although the United States has more than 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, Obama has not visited Kabul for some 18 months. The strategic partnership agreement is a significant achievement that the president should trumpet, ideally with a trip to the country.