At least one thing appears to be certain about Afghanistan’s long drawn-out presidential election: The winner will sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States.
Both candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, have endorsed the pact, which spells out the conditions for any U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan beyond 2014. President Obama has approved plans for as many as 9,800 service members to stay on after most coalition combat troops withdraw in December.
Many Afghans believe the agreement will pave the way for continued international support that could stabilize their nation’s economy and security, both of which have suffered since the election process began in October. After a disputed runoff vote in June, election officials said Friday that they had completed a much delayed recount of all 8 million ballots, with a winner likely to be declared within days.
Sultan Mohammad Ebadi, governor of the northern province of Baghlan, said the agreement would ensure that the United States does not turn its back on the country as it did after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989 and Washington all but ignored Afghanistan’s struggles for more than a decade.
“They can’t forget us again,” Ebadi said. “At the very least, the U.S. should remember the young people that have been able to succeed and make something of themselves because of the last 13 years of international support.”
The partnership agreement will allow the United States to maintain military bases and shield U.S. soldiers accused of crimes in Afghanistan from trials in Afghan courts, according to a draft text. It also obliges the U.S. to provide economic assistance for at least 10 years, including helping to pay for the continued training and advising of Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government, which is almost completely dependent on foreign aid, can afford to pay only $500 million of the $4.1-billion annual cost of maintaining its more than 330,000 soldiers and police officers.
As Taliban fighters carry out offensives in northern and southern Afghanistan, analysts say that maintaining the Afghan forces is crucial to the survival of the next government in Kabul.
At last week’s NATO summit in Wales, the Afghan envoy, Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, delivered a statement from both candidates reaffirming their pledge to sign the strategic pact and end the election deadlock by forming a unity government with members from both political camps.
U.S. officials are deeply concerned about the prospect of a Taliban resurgence, and experts say the fate of the partnership deal was the driving force behind Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s two recent visits to Kabul to help resolve the election impasse and broker the deal calling for a unity government.
Obaid Ali, an analyst for the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, said Washington hopes the long-term agreement will signal to Iran that it should not attempt to destabilize Afghanistan, its neighbor to the east.
“The Saudis and Pakistanis are pressuring the U.S. to ensure that Iran doesn’t make inroads into Afghanistan,” Ali said.
But to some Afghans in areas where fighting has been fierce, a continued U.S. presence does not mean stability.
A resident of the southern province of Kandahar, a longtime Taliban stronghold, who like some others requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, quoted a local saying: “Where there are foreigners, there are planes.”
It is a reference to airstrikes like the one in neighboring Helmand province last year that killed his cousin – the 12th member of his family to die in an attack by U.S.-led NATO coalition forces, the 27-year-old said. The man, like others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity to shield himself from reprisals.
The killings prompted his family to move from Kandahar’s provincial capital to a village ruled by the Taliban, where the Afghan government and U.S. forces have little reach.
Outgoing President Hamid Karzai invoked such deaths when he objected to signing the strategic agreement before leaving office. Spokesman Aimal Faizi said Karzai’s “focus has always been on how to stop civilian casualties in a war which is not ours, but forced upon us.”
Analysts say Karzai has often wielded civilian deaths as leverage over the U.S.-led coalition, and criticize him for failing to express similar outrage at atrocities by the Taliban.
U.N. statistics show that insurgents were responsible for three-quarters of the nearly 5,000 civilian deaths and injuries recorded in the first half of this year, while coalition forces caused 1% of the casualties. The remaining deaths were attributed to Afghan forces and other or undetermined causes.
Many Afghans in volatile provinces still blame U.S.-led forces for civilian deaths, and believe that if the strategic pact means a continued U.S. troop presence, it should not be signed.
According to an Amnesty International report released last month, foreign forces were responsible for more than 1,800 civilian casualties between 2009 and 2013.
One resident of Wardak province, an hour southwest of Kabul, said his community has seen little benefit from the foreign troop presence.
“When they come to someone’s house, they destroy everything,” he said. “They don’t ask who you are – a soldier, a Talib or just someone trying to go on with your life. They assume you are trouble.”
In February, after allegations that U.S. special forces soldiers and Afghans working alongside them had abducted, tortured and killed civilians in Wardak, Karzai demanded the elite American units withdraw from the province, a strategic gateway to Kabul. U.S. forces complied, while denying any wrongdoing.
The province has been “caught in the middle between the Taliban and the U.S., and neither is working for our benefit,” said the Wardak resident, who works mainly as a day laborer.
Some Afghans said they were willing to accept the partnership agreement if it meant continued financial assistance for Afghanistan, but others said it could trap the country in a cycle of violence.
The pact “is just a guarantee of continuous fighting,” the Kandahar resident said. “The Taliban will continue to fight foreigners and the people will continue to be angry at the foreign forces for their actions.”
Latifi is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, India, contributed to this report.