President Barack Obama's dramatic arrival in Kabul aboard Air Force One under the cover of darkness was fitting finale to the cloak-and-dagger operation that eliminated Osama bin Laden a year earlier. The trip also marked a symbolic beginning of the end of American intervention in Afghanistan that was occasioned by bin Laden's daring 2001 assault on the US. Obama offered clarification of the US aim in coming years as troops withdraw, opening the door to regional powers playing a role.
During the brief visit the US and Afghanistan signed the much awaited strategic partnership agreement which stipulates that the Afghan security forces take the lead in combat operations by the end of next year and US troops withdraw by the end of 2014. The pact underscores America's commitment to Afghanistan for a decade as American trainers would continue to assist Afghan forces. A contingent of troops tasked with combating Al Qaeda through counterterrorism operations, too, will remain. Though specific details are yet to be finalized, the agreement provides needed clarity about America's intended footprint in Afghanistan over the next decade. There's been growing concern in sections of the policy communities in Washington, Kabul and New Delhi about an abrupt end to American security commitment in Afghanistan.
Before the agreement, Washington had been on wrong foot in Afghanistan after a series of events including the Koran burnings, emergence of an internet video in January 2012 showing three Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, and an American soldier killing Afghan civilians in March 2012 - all inflaming Afghan public opinion to an unprecedented degree. Responding to popular anger, the Afghan president had hardened his stance, refusing to consider the agreement until American-led night raids were halted and the main military prison was handed over to Afghan officials. Only after these issues were resolved to Kabul's satisfaction was the strategic partnership agreement finalized.
The US has made it clear that it seeks "an enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability and prosperity and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates." It's towards that end that the latest pact underscores the ongoing American role in bolstering Afghan democracy and civil society and pledges US financial support to Afghanistan through 2024. Though it's not evident how vague US reassurances will get translated into operational policy, Washington has sent a clear signal that it won't abandon Afghanistan and will retain a presence in the region's evolving strategic realities.
Afghanistan's national security adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta described the pact as "providing a strong foundation for the security of Afghanistan, the region and the world, and is a document for the development of the region." Of course, he's right in so far as this pact removes the ambiguity surrounding America's post-2014 posture in Afghanistan, not only for Kabul but also for New Delhi where there's been growing concern about implications for regional stability after American withdrawal.