The signing of a long-delayed bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan today means the U.S. won't again find itself in the same situation it faced two years ago in Iraq, where the failure to reach a similar accord precipitated the withdrawal of all American forces and a rapid deterioration of the security situation.
The Afghans can now be assured of continued American military assistance in their struggle against a resurgent Taliban — at least for the next two years, when the agreement must be renewed. What they shouldn't count on, however, is an indefinite American troop presence there. The U.S. should stay only as long as it takes to stabilize the country and ensure the government there is capable of defending itself — and not a moment longer. President Barack Obama pledged to end the war in Iraq and wind down the mission in Afghanistan when he took office six years ago, and that should remain the goal of U.S. policymakers.
The agreement was signed the day after Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as Afghanistan's new president under a power-sharing arrangement with his nearest rival in national elections this year, Abdullah Abdullah. Both men attended the signing ceremony, as did former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since shortly after Taliban rule was toppled in 2001. The new Afghan government represents the first democratic transition of power in the country's history, and both the Afghans and their American partners have a huge stake in its success.
Under the accord, up to 9,800 U.S. troops can stay in the country past 2014 to help train, equip and advise Afghan military and police forces. The accord also allows American special forces units to carry out counter-terrorism missions similar to the ones the U.S. conducted in Iraq while a separate status-of-forces agreement permits a small NATO contingent to remain in the country beyond 2014 as well.
The agreements ban foreign forces from raiding mosques and other sacred sites and make foreign contractors subject to Afghan laws. But the U.S. military rather than Afghan courts will retain jurisdiction over American troops accused of crimes in the country. That was one of the major sticking points that led to the collapse of status-of-forces negotiations with the Iraqis in 2012.
Although the accord undoubtedly will help stave off the threat of an imminent takeover by the Taliban, the new Afghan government cannot rely solely on a military strategy to defeat the insurgency. The government under Mr. Karzai was notorious for its corruption and incompetence, large parts of the country are beset by violent drug gangs and local warlords who viciously exploit the people in areas they control, and younger Afghanis continue to flee the country in hopes of finding better lives for themselves and their families in Europe and the U.S.
None of these problems can be solved by the presence of foreign troops. Moreover, there's the ever-present danger that the despair engendered by decades of war and instability could eventually cause ordinary Afghans to blame the very foreigners who are trying to help them for their misery and turn against them out of sheer frustration. Certainly something like that happened in parts of Iraq during the American occupation there, and it could happen again.
The U.S. has a legitimate interest in seeing to it that the Taliban don't return to power and again transform Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists bent on attacking our country. But we can't force Afghans to make the kind of reforms we think necessary to address their problems if they don't want to.
That's why the U.S. needs to stay focused on getting out of Afghanistan altogether sooner rather than later. American officials may be breathing a sigh of relief this week to see the Afghans finally sign the kind of accord that eluded them in Iraq. But they must remain mindful not to make our country a permanent partner in another one of the region's seemingly endless wars.