Despite serious setbacks for the U.S. in Afghanistan over the last three months, the two countries were able to conclude a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) over the weekend that lays a broad framework for U.S.–Afghan relations following the end of U.S. and NATO combat operations in 2014.
The agreement will both demonstrate to the Afghans that the U.S. will remain committed to the country long after 2014 and provide a framework for the U.S. to maintain a residual presence to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions.
The details of the post-2014 U.S. presence still have to be negotiated in separate agreements over the next year. While problems could arise in those more detailed talks, the conclusion of the SPA—particularly against the backdrop of the Koran burnings in late February and the shooting rampage by a U.S. staff sergeant on March 11—demonstrates the Afghan government’s interest in establishing a long-term partnership with the U.S.
The signing of the SPA before the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago in late May will help build confidence among the NATO allies and encourage them to make their own long-term commitments to Afghanistan. While the SPA specifies neither future U.S. funding amounts nor troop levels, it offers a broad U.S. commitment to support Afghanistan financially and to bolster democratic institutions and civil society through 2024.
The two sides overcame major stumbling blocks in the SPA talks in recent weeks. On March 9, they agreed on a plan to transfer 3,000 Afghan detainees from U.S. to Afghan control. The agreement states that the U.S. must transfer control of prisoners at the Parwan prison within six months but that U.S. officials will retain the ability to block the release of detainees even after they are transferred to Afghan authority.
They also hammered out an agreement on the issue of night raids on suspected Taliban hideouts in which they agreed that Afghan security forces will take the lead in night raids and will continue to receive support from U.S. forces “as required or requested.” The issue of night raids had become particularly controversial with Afghans, who view them as an infringement on their sovereignty. The U.S., on the other hand, sees the use of night raids as a key element in its anti-Taliban operations. The agreement appears to leave the door open for U.S. unilateral raids against high-value targets in exceptional circumstances.
Concluding the SPA demonstrates the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan like it did in 1989. It also spells out an important U.S. red line to the Taliban, who have long called for expelling all foreign forces from the country. The Taliban criticized the Afghan government for moving forward with the SPA, saying the U.S. goal was to prevent the institution of a true Islamic government and to establish an army hostile to Islam that protects Western interests in the region.
The question is whether the Taliban would agree to restart talks with the U.S. in light of the agreement. From the U.S. perspective, talks with the Taliban are desirable only if they result in ensuring that Afghanistan will never again become a base for international terrorists. For now, the U.S. is better off focusing its resources on supporting anti-Taliban elements that share U.S. goals in the region.