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Afghanistan and the United States signed a long-delayed security pact Tuesday, ensuring that American troops can stay in the country after the end of the year, in the first major step of newly inaugurated President Ashraf Ghani.
The Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was signed by US Ambassador James Cunningham and Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, in a televised ceremony at the presidential palace, Reuters reports.
Under the agreement, up to 9,800 US soldiers are allowed to stay in Afghanistan after the end of combat operations this year, to help train and advise Afghan military and police forces. A separate pact also signed with NATO Tuesday allows for a small force of roughly 3,000 international troops.
The signing of the security arrangements comes a day after Mr. Ghani was sworn in as Afghanistan’s second president and signals his desire to reset ties with the US after his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, angered Washington by refusing to ink the agreement.
Mr. Karzai “stunned Afghans and international officials alike by refusing to sign the security deal with Washington even after it had been approved by the Loya Jirga gathering of local representatives in November,” of 2013, the Wall Street Journal writes.
Mr. Karzai, whose ties with the West had soured in recent years, said the agreements would undermine chances for peace with the Taliban, who remain a formidable threat to the central government.
Both Ghani and his campaign opponent Abdullah Abdullah had promised to sign the BSA as a first priority in office. The bitterly disputed and drawn-out election, results of which were delayed due to Mr. Abdullah’s accusations of mass fraud, had raised fears that no new president would be in place to sign the deal.
The signing of the security pacts was also a precondition to the continued dispersement of foreign aid. Afghanistan government is hugely reliant on foreign aid – a World Bank study in May found that in the year to Sept. 30, 2011, foreign aid was the equivalent of Afghanistan’s entire GDP, the Economist notes.
The security agreements “are directly linked to the continued delivery of billions of dollars in aid that the Afghan government and its armed forces need to survive," The Wall Street Journal writes.
Under President Obama’s timeline, US forces in Afghanistan will drop by half by the end of 2015 and withdraw nearly completely by the end of 2016, with a small contingent left in a “security office,” the BBC and the Associated Press report.
The BSA will also allow the US military to maintain some bases in Afghanistan, and give soldiers immunity from local law, The Washington Post reports.
US forces are helping train Afghanistan’s 350,000-person military and police force, “which shoulders most of the fighting already,” the Journal explains:
Afghan troops, however, still need foreign help as they lack crucial capabilities in areas including aerial reconnaissance, close air support and logistics.
The U.S.-led coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force, already is preparing for the new mission, called "Resolute Support." The number of foreign troops in Afghanistan has rapidly shrunk in recent years. The coalition is down to 33 bases that house some 37,000 foreign troops, from the roughly 800 bases it operated at the peak of President Barack Obama's surge in 2010-2011.
The agreement comes amid increased Taliban activity. The Taliban "have taken advantage of the paralysis in Kabul to launch attacks in an attempt [to] regain strategic territory in provinces such as Helmand in the south and Kunduz in the north," Reuters reports.
The Taliban have denounced the pact with the United States and repeated that on Tuesday, calling it a "sinister" plot by the United States to control Afghanistan and restore its international credibility as a military super power.