The United States and Afghanistan on Tuesday signed a long-awaited security pact to allow U.S. forces to remain in the country after the majority of NATO coalition forces withdraw at the end of the year, fulfilling a campaign promise by newly elected President Ashraf Ghani.
At a ceremony in the capital, Kabul, U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham and Afghanistan’s newly appointed national security adviser, Mohmmad Hanif Atmar, signed the document.
There are about 41,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 130,000 in 2012. Most will leave after the international military force formally ends its combat mission at the end of 2014.
Under the terms of the new agreement, troops from Germany, Italy and other NATO members will join a remaining force of 9,800 U.S. troops for a total of about 12,500.
In an email statement to Al Jazeera, U.S. defense spokesman Maj. Brad Avots said most of the U.S. forces would be part of the NATO Resolute Support Mission (RSM) to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
What that will mean in practice is not entirely clear.
In addition to ambiguous logistical and operational support functions, “a portion of the U.S. presence will conduct counterterrorism operations aimed at preventing remnants of core Al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a sanctuary to plan and execute attacks on the United States,” Avots said.
“We believe the transition to RSM gives us the best opportunity to continue working with the ANSF to strengthen their ability to fight the Taliban while also allowing the ANSF to take full responsibility for their security,” he added.
Observers express fears that, in the absence of stronger international forces, the Taliban will overpower Afghanistan’s new government. The group routinely claims responsibility for attacks and suicide bombings in the country.
“If the Afghan government and Afghans want this, this is good,” said Thomas Ruttig, a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. “They need training, not such in how to fight but on the rules that govern war in the modern world,” he added, pointing to U.N. reports on civilian casualties in the hands of the ANSF.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey described the ANSF as “excellent fighters” but echoed Ruttig, saying, “Their forces are still maturing at the institutional level, and our efforts there over the next year will be key to the long-term sustainability of their forces.”
How long the remaining troops’ mission will last remains unclear.
‘Security and stability’
Ghani, who was sworn into office on Monday, told an assembled crowd that the agreement signaled a fundamental shift in the country’s relations with the world.
“This agreement is only for Afghan security and stability,” he said in a speech after the signing. “As an independent country, based on our national interests, we signed this agreement for stability, goodwill and prosperity of our people, stability of the region and the world.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also hailed the agreement an important step for Afghanistan. “These agreements will enable American and coalition troops to continue to help strengthen Afghan forces, counter terrorist threats and advance regional security,” he said.
Both Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, his election-challenger-turned-chief executive, said during their campaigns they would sign the agreement. Former President Hamid Karzai, however, would not commit to the pact.
The Taliban, fighting to oust foreign forces and the U.S-backed government, have taken advantage of paralysis in Kabul to launch attacks in an attempt regain strategic territory in provinces such as Helmand in the south and Kunduz in the north.
The Taliban previously denounced the pact and repeated their objections on Tuesday, calling it a “sinister” plot by the United States to control Afghanistan and restore U.S. credibility internationally as a military superpower.
“Under the name of the security agreement, today Americans want to prepare themselves for another nonobvious and very dangerous fight," the Taliban said in a statement emailed to the media.
"With their bulk of artifices and deceptions they want to hoodwink the people. They think that the Afghan people do not know about their conspiracies and their sinister goals."
Tuesday’s deal comes after presidential elections, stalled for months over disputes about the vote count, concluded in economist Ghani’s favor.
Ghani and his opponent Abdullah conceded to a power-sharing agreement to end the vote dispute.
Moments after Ghani took the presidential oath, he swore in Abdullah as chief executive, fulfilling a political pledge he had taken to share power and defuse election tensions that had threatened to spark violence between the country's north and south, divided by different languages and ethnicities.
But in a sign of the still fragile state of security in Afghanistan, fighting between Afghan forces and opposition rebels on Monday killed at least 12 civilians and police officers. A suicide bomber killed seven people at a security checkpoint near Kabul's airport just before Ghani was sworn in, a government official said. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Afghanistan, nicknamed the "graveyard of empires" for its history of resisting colonization, from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union, has had U.S. troops on its soil since October 2001, in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Al-Qaeda had found refuge in the Taliban-ruled country. After U.S. and NATO forces managed to push Al-Qaeda's leadership into hiding or Pakistan, their job became one of battling back the Taliban, training Afghan troops and pouring money into the development of the country, one of the poorest in the world.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Additional reporting by Saila Huusko.