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US, Afghanistan sign agreement to keep 10,000 US troops in country past 2014

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    Afghanistan's national security adviser Mohmmad Hanif Atmar (sitting r.) and NATO ambassador to Afghanistan Maurits Jochems (sitting l.) sign the NATO-Afghanistan Status of Forces Agreement at presidential palace as Afghanistan's president Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (center r.) \and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah (center l.) watch, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Afghanistan and the United States signed the long-awaited security pact on Tuesday that will allow US forces to remain in the country past the end of year.
    Massoud Hossaini/AP
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After months of delay, due mostly to intransigence by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the United States and Afghanistan have entered into an agreement that will keep American troops in Afghanistan past 2014, largely in a training role:

KABUL, Afghanistan – Nearly a year after a long-term deal to keep American troops in Afghanistan was suddenly derailed amid worsening relations, Afghanistan and the United States signed the security pact on Tuesday.

The agreement allows 9,800 American and about 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after the international combat mission formally ends on Dec. 31. Their role will be to train and support Afghan security forces, but the pact also allows for American Special Operations forces to conduct counterterrorism missions in the country.

The signing, in a televised ceremony at the presidential palace, fulfilled a campaign promise by the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who was inaugurated just a day before. As Mr. Ghani watched, Ambassador James B. Cunningham signed for the United States, and the new Afghan national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, signed for Afghanistan.

After months of wrangling on the terms of the bilateral security agreement last year, President Hamid Karzai ultimately refused to sign it, souring relations between the two countries.

In his inauguration speech on Monday, Mr. Ghani called for the healing of that relationship, and for a new era of cooperation. On Tuesday, however, he was more focused on the Afghan interest, emphasizing that the agreement had been signed “in accordance with our national interests,” and that it would open the doors for a continuation of civilian and military aid to his hist government.

Pointedly noting that Western donors had promised Afghanistan $16 billion in economic aid, he said that Afghanistan and the West had “shared dangers and shared interests.”

But he also addressed lingering Afghan sovereignty concerns, stressing that international forces would not be allowed to raid mosques or other sacred sites; foreign contractors would be subject to strict government regulation; and that both countries have the right to withdraw from the pact in two years.

American officials, for their part, appeared simply relieved that an episode that had stirred much rancor – and multiple diplomatic interventions by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry – had finally come to an end.

After signing the pact in Kabul, Mr. Cunningham smiled and firmly embraced Mr. Atmar. Speaking later, he called it a historic agreement, and said that the endorsement of Afghan tribal leaders, who met to approve the pact last December, showed that “the people of Afghanistan placed a great stake in our enduring partnership.”

In Washington, Mr. Obama hailed the agreement and said the United States was committed to supporting Afghanistan.

“The B.S.A. reflects our continued commitment to support the new Afghan Unity Government, and we look forward to working with this new government to cement an enduring partnership that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability, unity, and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist affiliates,” he said in a statement released by the White House.

It was essentially a foregone conclusion that the agreement would eventually be signed since, despite Karzai’s intransigence, both of the main candidates to succeed Mr. Karzai supported the agreement, as did virtually the entire Afghan political establishment in Kabul. At the same time, Karzai’s refusal to sign off on the very agreement his representatives had negotiated, combined with increasingly anti-American rhetoric on his part that included claims that he didn’t need American troops to stay and which reached its height in a bitter farewell address last week, had soured relationships between Kabul and Washington. At several points over the last year, the United States made clear that it would pull all American troops out of the country if the agreement wasn’t signed, and, for a time at least, disputes over the legitimacy of the election seemed to delay the succession from Karzai to whomever won the election long enough that questions would be raised about whether the US would be able to keep troops in the country at all. As it was, even though the president had announced a plan that would keep a small training force in Afghanistan until 2017, there were already plans being made for a “zero option” that would have left no troops in country after the end of this year, if it proved impossible to reach an agreement.

Ideally, I would prefer that there be no American troops in Afghanistan after the end of the year. Practically, however, the combination of the fact that the president has been saying for the better part of a year that he preferred if there were a training/Special Forces force left behind for some limited period and what has happened in Iraq in recent months makes this somewhat inevitable. Fairly or not, and I would argue mostly unfairly, the president has gotten much criticism for not leaving a residual force behind in Iraq. Given that, his support for a residual training force in Afghanistan is unsurprising. The question now, of course, is whether that 2017 deadline that the president set in his speech earlier this year will actually hold, or if we’re looking at the beginning of a far more long-term commitment.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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