Afghanistan has signed long-delayed security pacts with the United States and NATO to authorize deployment of a small international military force in the country after the end of the year. The Taliban has rejected the deal as “shameful and shocking.”
The signing ceremony took place in Kabul’s presidential palace where Afghan national security advisor Hanif Atmar and American Ambassador James Cunningham inked the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). The Afghan advisor then signed a similar document with NATO’s civilian representative to the country.
Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, authorized the ratifications a day after taking office, thus quickly fulfilling one of his election promises. He later addressed the special gathering to defend the agreements, saying the right to use force will be based on decisions by the Afghan government and foreign forces will not be able to enter mosques or other holy sites around the country.
“On this day, Afghanistan has obtained its complete national sovereignty because until now the right to use military force in our homeland was authorized by a United Nations Security Council [resolution]," he said, adding that the agreements will also end civilian casualties and detentions of Afghans by foreign forces, citing them as two major Afghan concerns.
President Ghani also allayed fears of neighboring countries, saying they should not feel threatened because of the security pacts. He said that they are signed for the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan and to defend it against terrorist networks that have become a source of threat for the country and the world at large. The Afghan leader went on to say that the agreements do not allow use or deployment of chemical and nuclear weapons in Afghanistan.
Ghani's political rival Abdullah Abdullah, now Chief Executive of the country following a post-election power-sharing agreement, also attended the signing.
Ambassador Cunningham said that the BSA was the choice of the Afghan people decided via their newly elected leadership.
"It is a choice by Afghanistan to consolidate international support as the Afghan people work for a more secure and prosperous future," Cunningham said. "It is a choice by the United States to continue cooperating with our Afghan partners on two important security missions: training and equipping Afghan forces and supporting cooperation against terrorism."
President Barack Obama praised the deal Tuesday, saying "the BSA 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-Qaida and its extremist affiliates."
Afghanistan’s ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, Janan Mosazai, told VOA the security agreements will deepen already strong ties with the United States and the global partners.
“This is a significant day, it was a significant event," he said. "We have had a long-term strategic relationship with the United States and also with NATO and these two agreements will further entrench those strategic partnerships. They will allow for a follow-on presence of support missions both by the United States and also by NATO in terms of continued funding of the Afghan National Security Forces, but also in terms of continuing the training, advice and other support to our national security forces.”
By the time the security deal expires in 2024, Mosazai said, the goal is for his country's economy to be strong enough to reduce the level of international support for its military.
Under the two documents Afghanistan signed Tuesday, around 12,000 military personnel, mostly Americans, will stay in the country after 2014 when the current NATO-led combat mission ends. The U.S. military will also be able to retain Afghan bases to continue counterterrorism operations.
Negotiations between Kabul and Washington over the text of the Bilateral Security Agreement were completed a year ago but Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, refused to sign it, citing anger over civilian deaths and an alleged lack of U.S. interest in helping his government negotiate peace with the Taliban.
Former assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs Karl Inderfurth told VOA's Afghan service that Tuesday's deal was an "important new start" for the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship, which had soured in recent years.
"We've been there for 13 years, and we've made a substantial investment in terms of our resources and of course our soldiers who have fought and died there," he said. "We want to see this conclude successfully for Afghanistan and the United States."
The Islamist Taliban, in a statement sent to media outlets, has denounced the agreements, calling them a “sinister” plot by the United States to control Afghanistan and try to regain its international credibility as a military super power. The Taliban continues to launch attacks aimed at destabilizing the country. The group claimed a suicide bombing that killed six people Monday in Kabul.
In his inaugural speech on Monday, President Ghani called on the Taliban and other anti-government groups to come to the table for political talks to end bloodshed in the country, sayings Afghans are tired of war.
Monday’s democratic political transition marked the end of President Karzai’s nearly 13 years in power. He was installed as leader of Afghanistan in late 2001, shortly after a U.S.-led military coalition ousted the Taliban from power for harboring the al-Qaida network.
Difficult issues remain
RAND Corporation South Asia analyst Arturo Munoz said one of the difficult issues was the role the force would have in future combat operations.
"People were adamant for years that it would not have a combat role that their main mission would be to support the Afghan armed forces and provide them with additional training with advice. One big unresolved question was that this stay behind force would include a commando element that would continue do to raids against suspected terrorists. For the Afghans, this was a hot-button issue; foreign troops breaking down the doors of Afghan homes at night to do raids against suspected terrorists," said Munoz. "The accusation was sometimes the intelligence wasn’t good and broke into the wrong house."
Munoz said the solution is to embed the U.S./NATO forces with Afghan security forces, who would take the lead in any such operation.
The Obama administration said the reduced force will have as its twin objectives training Afghan forces and running counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida. Administration officials say the U.S. presence will be reduced by about half at the end of 2015 by consolidating troops in Kabul and at Bagram Airfield. By the end of 2016, the military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul providing equipment and advice.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked Monday if the U.S. force, expected to number about 9,800 after 2014, will be able to successfully help Afghan security forces neutralize the Taliban.
"There is the training component of this that has been ongoing. And, as you know, Afghans have been in the lead, and we are continuing to implement that in the months ahead. We felt committed and felt so strongly about moving forward, of course, with the conclusion of this political situation, as well as the signing of the BSA, so we could continue to have that partnership. Obviously, it has to be implemented, and we need to continue to work closely together to achieve a successful outcome," said Psaki.
Munoz said the importance of the continued presence of NATO and U.S. troops goes beyond their military role.
"Not only in terms of the military advice and training, which is their main function, but the fact that they’re there also gives assurance to all the Western donors who are contributing money to the Afghan government that there’s going to be stability and that the Afghan government is not going to adopt an anti-Western position kind of like Iraq did," said Munoz.
Another RAND Corporation South Asia analyst, Jonah Blank, said the U.S.-NATO force is crucial as the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban remains intense.
"The fact that the U.S. and other partner nations will be present doesn’t suggest that this is going to be an easy fight. This year, the Taliban killed more Afghan soldiers and police than it has in any year since it fell from power, and there are no signs that it is easing up,” said Blank.
Blank said the real test for the U.S./NATO force left behind is whether it can succeed in helping Afghan security forces keep Afghanistan from becoming an ungoverned space again and returning to what he called “the bad days” of the 1990s, when the Taliban took control. They were, he said, bad not just for the international community, but for the Afghan people.
VOA's Afghan service and Victor Beattie contributed to this report from Washington.