The 10-year security compact that President Barack Obama signed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai contains promises the United States and Afghanistan cannot guarantee they will keep, and loopholes for both nations.
The deal signed Tuesday also allows either nation to walk away on a year's notice. That could allow the next U.S. president, or the next Afghan leader, to scuttle a deal negotiated by his or her predecessor.
For Obama, the agreement represents a compromise with Karzai after messy negotiations over U.S. military detention of Afghan suspects and raids on Afghan homes that offend Afghans.
U.S. concessions were relatively small, however, and the deal Obama signed in Kabul is probably the best one he could get on a tight deadline. He wants to showcase a long-term commitment to Afghan stability when he hosts NATO leaders for a summit in Chicago later this month. U.S. officials said the deal is legally binding, but it does not carry the force of a treaty as Afghanistan originally wanted.
Obama called the agreement historic, and said it "defines a new kind of relationship between our countries — a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation, and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states."
The deal pledges Afghanistan to fight corruption, improve efficiency and protect human rights, including women's rights. All are areas where the United States already finds fault with Afghan performance, and Afghanistan has promised improvement on corruption many times before. The nine-page agreement spells out no consequences if those or other goals are not met.
The agreement uses even looser language to address the production and trafficking of illegal drugs in Afghanistan, a major opium producer. Both nations affirm that illicit drugs undermine security and legitimate economic growth but promise only to cooperate to confront the threat.
The United States promises to seek annual funding to train and equip the Afghan armed forces but gives no dollar figure. That money must be approved by Congress, which has so far supported the Obama administration's plan to build up the Afghan forces. There is growing concern in Congress, however, about the quality of those forces, and the billions of dollars they would need over 10 years is not assured.
The agreement promises ongoing U.S. investment in a variety of development, health, education and support projects aimed at helping the poor nation one day support itself, and it commits the United States to seek annual funding from Congress "commensurate with the strategic importance of the U.S.-Afghan partnership."
U.S. officials said they cannot make a more specific pledge because Congress controls the purse strings.
The agreement, which takes effect when U.S. and other foreign combat forces leave in 2014, also is not the last word on whether the United States leaves a much smaller contingent of troops in Afghanistan after that date.
Both of the current leaders want such a residual force. But if Iraq is a guide, the rationale for a continued U.S. military presence on the soil of a Muslim nation could change, or new leadership in Washington or Kabul could decide on a different path.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby said the "strategic partnership agreement" is not intended to address the specific terms of an ongoing military relationship. The agreement pledges the two nations to begin work on a more detailed pact, and sets a goal of one year to complete it.
"Clearly if you're going to have troops remaining in Afghanistan, you're going to have to have some guidelines that govern that," Kirby said. "What form it takes and what title it has ... we're just not there yet."
The U.S. promises to name Afghanistan a "major non-NATO ally," a loose term meant to underscore U.S. commitment to Afghan stability but not one that would automatically bind the U.S. to come to Afghanistan's defense if it were attacked. The deal does say that the United States would "regard with grave concern any external aggression against Afghanistan," and promises urgent consultation on a diplomatic, military or other response.
The agreement also sets in writing previous assurances from U.S. leaders that the United States will not build permanent military bases in Afghanistan or use its soil to launch hostile attacks on its neighbors. That does not preclude U.S. military and intelligence units from sharing space at Afghan bases, but if honored would prevent the United States from launching any future strike on Iran from inside Afghanistan.
Karzai had sought the deal as a measure of U.S. dedication to protect and underwrite his poor but strategically located country. He is worried about a political and military resurgence of the Taliban insurgency once tens of thousands of foreign forces leave, and U.S. officials share that concern.
Karzai, however, is scheduled to leave office in 2014, probably just before the new agreement would take effect.
His successor is unclear, as is the future of a political outreach to the Taliban that might draw the movement or its surrogates into some kind of power-sharing arrangement. All are factors that could affect whether Afghanistan continues to want such a deal with the United States.
Either nation can quit the agreement with one year's written notice. If both parties want to cancel it they can do so by mutual agreement at any time.
The deal was announced the same day the Pentagon said in a new report that the counter-insurgency campaign is making good progress on the military side, but little progress on issues that depend on cooperation from the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
"The Afghan government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy and bolsters insurgent messaging," the semi-annual report to Congress said.
It identified safe havens in Pakistan where insurgents hide and re-arm for attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces as "the most critical threat" to the war effort.