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Afghanistan signs pact to keep US and NATO troops past 2014

New York Times - October 1, 2014

Declan Walsh, Kabul Nearly a year after a long-term deal to keep US troops in Afghanistan was suddenly derailed amid worsening relations, Afghanistan and the United States signed the security pact on Tuesday.

The agreement allows 9,800 US and about 2,000 NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan after the international combat mission formally ends on December 31. Their role will be to train and support Afghan security forces, but the pact also allows for US Special Operations forces to conduct counter-terrorism missions in the country.

The signing, in a televised ceremony at the presidential palace, fulfilled a campaign promise by the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who was inaugurated just a day before. As Ahmadzai watched, Ambassador James Cunningham signed for the United States, and the new Afghan national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, signed for Afghanistan.

After months of wrangling on the terms of the bilateral security agreement last year, former President Hamid Karzai ultimately refused to sign it, souring relations between the two countries.

In his inauguration speech, Ahmadzai called for the healing of that relationship and for a new era of co-operation. On Tuesday, however, he was more focused on the Afghan interest, emphasising that the agreement had been signed "in accordance with our national interests," and that it would open the doors for a continuation of civilian and military aid to his government.

Pointedly noting that Western donors had promised Afghanistan $US16 billion in economic aid, he said that Afghanistan and the West had "shared dangers and shared interests".

But he also addressed lingering Afghan sovereignty concerns, stressing that international forces would not be allowed to raid mosques or other sacred sites; foreign contractors would be subject to strict government regulation; and that both countries have the right to withdraw from the pact in two years.

US officials, for their part, appeared simply relieved that an episode that had stirred much rancour and multiple diplomatic interventions by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry had finally come to an end.

After signing the pact in Kabul, Cunningham smiled and firmly embraced Atmar. Speaking later, he called it a historic agreement and said that the endorsement of Afghan tribal leaders, who met to approve the pact last December, showed that "the people of Afghanistan placed a great stake in our enduring partnership".

In Washington, Obama hailed the agreement and said the United States was committed to supporting Afghanistan.

"The BSA reflects our continued commitment to support the new Afghan Unity Government, and we look forward to working with this new government to cement an enduring partnership that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability, unity, and prosperity, and that contributes to our shared goal of defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates," he said in a statement released by the White House. Ahmadzai was joined onstage by his chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah. The two men spent the summer embroiled in a bitter dispute over the results of last June's presidential vote. But one of their few points of agreement was that the US security deal should be signed.

On Tuesday, Atmar also signed an agreement with NATO to provide for the continued presence of non-American NATO troops after 2014. Afghanistan urgently needs to bolster its security forces to fend off a muscular threat from Taliban insurgents, who have aggressively attacked vulnerable districts this summer and badly bloodied the Afghan security forces who have taken over security duties from foreign troops.

In his inauguration speech, Ahmadzai called on the Taliban to join peace talks. But he also warned that the invitation should not be taken as a sign of weakness, and that his government would respond forcefully to any attacks on civilians.

The Taliban denounced the security pact as a "sinister" plot by the United States, and used it to launch its first propaganda assault on the Ahmadzai administration.

"With this action, the new staff of the presidential palace have proved their disloyalty to the religion and history of Afghanistan," said a Pashto-language statement posted on Twitter. The following post read: "Death to America!"

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/afghanistan-signs-pact-to-keep-us-and-nato-troops-past-2014-20141001-10od7e.html.

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