Afghanistan and the United States on Sunday agreed a draft of a long-awaited deal that will define the scope and nature of a U.S. presence in the country for up to a decade after the pullout of most NATO combat troops in 2014.
The U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, and Afghan national security adviser, Rangin Spanta, initialled copies of the agreement, paving the way for President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, to review it.
After much hard work together, we are pleased that we are close to completing negotiations on (the) Strategic Partnership, a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kabul told Reuters.
Our goal is 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. We believe this agreement supports that goal, he said.
The deal, under negotiation now for more than nine months, comes at a time when relations between Washington and Kabul remain badly strained by a number of incidents involving U.S. soldiers that have infuriated public opinion.
It spells out the framework for a future U.S. role in Afghanistan, including aid assistance and governance advice.
But it will not specify whether a reduced number of U.S. troops - possibly special forces - and advisers will remain in the country after NATO's 2014 withdrawal deadline, with that issue to be covered in a separate status of forces agreement.
Negotiations on the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) were delayed for months until U.S. negotiators agreed to Karzai's demands to hand over operation of American prisons in the country to Afghan control and to hand over leadership of night raids on homes to Afghan forces.
DEADLINE FOR FINAL DEAL NEAR
Both sides have been keen to allay Afghan fears that they are about to be abandoned by clinching a deal that they hope will calm nerves ahead of NATO's planned pullout and a phasing out of Western aid.
Insurgents staged coordinated attacks in Kabul and elsewhere a week ago that paralyzed the capital's centre and diplomatic area for 18 hours. The Taliban claimed the attacks, but U.S. and Afghan officials blamed the militant Haqqani Network.
The U.S. embassy spokesman said the agreed wording of the deal would now enter internal consultation processes on both sides and would be examined by the U.S. Congress if needed before finally being reviewed by President Obama.
Both President Obama and President Karzai have said they hope to sign this agreement before the NATO Summit in Chicago, the spokesman said.
The late May Chicago summit will see Western leaders try to agree on future funding and support for the 352,000-strong Afghan police and army. That support is expected to amount to $4 billion a year, with the Afghan government contributing around $500 million a year of that.
The Afghan government is separately negotiating similar deals to SPA with other NATO member states and U.S. allies, who contribute to the 130,000-strong coalition force.
Karzai recently said he wanted the United States to contribute $2 billion a year under the U.S.-Afghan SPA, but an Afghan government source said on condition of anonymity that the deal negotiated by Crocker and Spanta contained no firm numbers.
Until the agreement is finalized, the U.S. embassy spokesman said he could not discuss its content.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)