U.S. Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham says progress is being made towards a strategic partnership agreement that will authorize a reduced U.S. military presence after the 2014 withdrawal of most Western combat troops.
A recent arrangement that shifts responsibility for detainees and special-forces operations to Afghan control, he said, has allowed for progress on a long-term strategic partnership that would authorize a U.S. training and support role after 2014.
Cunningham would like to have the formal agreement in place prior to the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, which will look at the international community's future role in supporting Afghan forces.
"The end result of this will be a very clear and strong demonstration of long-term international support for Afghanistan," said Cunningham. "That should send a signal to the people of Afghanistan and to the region."
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said an Afghan force of 230,000 had been agreed upon as a conceptual model, a significant reduction from the 352,000-strong Afghan army and national police expected to be in place this year.
The defense minister said the reduction of forces would depend on conditions on the ground and is based on an assumption of diminishing threats from the Taliban.
Afghan forces are funded almost entirely by foreign contributions, and President Hamid Karzai has said the international community has already agreed to provide $4 billion annually to fund the Afghan military after 2014. Cunningham did not provide any specifics on future funding but said the level of military cooperation would be an ongoing subject of discussions for years to come.
American military involvement in Afghanistan has become increasingly unpopular in the U.S., and Afghan resentment of the international military presence has been on the rise following a series of incidents, including the massacre of 17 Afghan villagers, for which U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged, and the inadvertent burning of Qurans at an American military base.
Cunningham said the international community's long-term commitment to stay engaged in Afghanistan in a supporting role will help reduce tensions, maintain stability and should deter insurgents.
"I would hope that this would encourage the Taliban and others to think about the prospects for agreement instead of what they did yesterday, murdering more Afghan civilians in the streets of your cities," he said.
There have been a number attacks this week on Afghan forces, including Taliban suicide bombings that killed at least 16 people on Tuesday.