Obama's visit to Kabul opens challenging period for U.S.-Afghan relations

KABUL, Afghanistan — With the signing of the "strategic partnership agreement" during a surprise visit by President Barack Obama, the United States entered perhaps the most complicated phase of its decade-long war in Afghanistan — a chapter that will include both the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. troops and a more precise articulation of the United States' long-term presence here.

The accord signed Tuesday by Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledges American financial and military support beyond 2014, when the U.S. combat mission will formally conclude. But that broad outline must now be filled in with details of the U.S. commitment — troop levels, counterterrorism operations and economic assistance — informed by strategic concerns on the ground and the political calculus in war-weary Washington.

U.S. and Afghan officials have given themselves one year to craft a status-of-forces agreement that will answer lingering questions about the nature of the long-term military partnership. Ambassador Ryan Crocker suggested Wednesday that the agreement signed in Iraq could be seen as a guideline.

But Afghan leaders are far more eager than were Iraqis to maintain a strong American presence in their country after the war's formal conclusion, raising concerns about both resources and willingness during the waning days of the war.

U.S. officials have said they will not keep long-term bases in Afghanistan and that the country will not be used as a staging ground for attacks on Pakistan. But Crocker said Wednesday that "if we or Afghanistan are threatened or attacked by countries outside of Afghanistan, we have the right of self-defense."

Despite the unknowns ahead, Afghan and U.S. officials on Wednesday celebrated the signing of the agreement, calling it a historic bilateral commitment. "It is a new beginning in the U.S.-Afghan relationship," said Shaida Abdali, the deputy national security adviser.

Obama's visit to Kabul opens challenging period for U.S.-Afghan relations 05/03/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 3, 2012 12:05am]

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