US troops will remain in Afghanistan next year after the country's lawmakers inked a security pact that allows an American presence to remain past the previously set December deadline.
National security adviser Hanif Atmar and US Ambassador James Cunningham signed the document Tuesday at Kabul's presidential palace.
Roughly 10,000 American troops will now stay in Afghanistan after the current international combat mission officially ends on December 31.
The deal was only signed following the appointment of President Ashraf Ghani, who was sworn into office on Monday, at the head of a unity government after a bitter dispute over vote counting in the recent runoffs.
His predecessor Hamid Karzai refused to ratify the deal, even though US officials signaled that this would result in a full American withdrawal, a major source of contention between the two countries. Ghani's electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah, who is now Chief Executive of the new government (a position roughly analogous to an Executive Prime Minister), had also pledged to sign it.
"As an independent country… we signed this agreement for stability, goodwill, and prosperity of the our people, stability of the region and the world," Ghani said after the signing, Reuters reported.
A similar agreement allowing NATO troops to stay in Afghanistan past December was also inked shortly afterward. Around 2,000 troops will be contributed to the effort by non-US NATO states.
Abdullah also welcomed the deal, saying it would "help strengthen peace and stability in the region," according to the Associated Press.
The US embassy in Kabul praised the move, describing it as a sign of America's dedication to Afghanistan. "This is another important step in solidifying our strong bilateral relationship and an essential component for supporting Afghanistan's long-term security," the embassy said in a statement. "The BSA [bilateral security agreement] is the clearest possible expression of a US commitment to a security partnership with Afghanistan."
NATO troops have played an important role in Afghanistan's security for well over a decade, since a US-led coalition toppled the hardline Islamist Taliban government in 2001. There are currently around 41,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 130,000 in 2012.
The combined international force replacing them will provide training and help to local forces — now some 350,000 strong — in the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups. Ghani stressed that Afghanistan would retain control over its airspace, that force would only be used based on decisions made by the Afghan government, and that international troops would not be able to enter mosques or other holy sites.
Ghani's arrival in office came after months of political deadlock, and Taliban fighters have taken the opportunity to ramp up attacks in different parts of the country. Last week, an assault in Ghazni province — a gateway to Kabul — killed at least 100 civilians. Fifteen were reportedly beheaded, likely targeted because of family ties with security forces.
The Taliban warned Tuesday that US troops staying in Afghanistan would be involved in a "very dangerous" fight, and accused American leaders of choosing to maintain a presence in the country to achieve "sinister goals."
"Under the name of the security agreement, today Americans want to prepare themselves for another non-obvious and very dangerous fight," officials warned in an emailed statement provided to media and cited by Al Jazeera and others. "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."
An increasingly emboldened Taliban will likely prove to be a major security headache during Ghani's first year in office. The new president will also have to handle the transitional demands of a drop in US presence, and transfer responsibility for the country's security situation to Afghan forces.
Ghani has promised a less-corrupt government that Karzai. But cleaning up the country's epidemic levels of graft will not be easy: Afghanistan ranked 175 out of 177 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2013. Tackling Afghanistan's moribund economy could prove to be his most crucial task, although it will be hampered by crippling lack of infrastructure. After 10 years as a World Bank advisor and two as Karzai's Finance Minister, however, Ghani is arguably better placed than most to do so.
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