U.S. Grants Special Ally Status to Afghans, Easing Fears of Abandonment
KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States declared Afghanistan a major, non-NATO ally on Saturday, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton personally delivering the news of Afghanistan’s entry into a club that includes Israel, Japan, Pakistan and other close Asian and Middle Eastern allies.
The move, announced as Mrs. Clinton stood with President Hamid Karzai amid the rose beds and towering trees on the grounds of the presidential palace here, was part of a broad strategic partnership deal signed by the United States and Afghanistan in May, she said. The pact went into effect last week.
“Please know that the United States will be your friend,” she told Mr. Karzai. “We are not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan. Quite the opposite. We are building a partnership with Afghanistan that will endure far into the future.”
The designation by the United States grants a country special privileges, like access to American military training and excess military supplies, Mrs. Clinton said.
In a separate statement, the State Department said Afghanistan would also be able to obtain loans of equipment from the United States and financing for leasing equipment. The agreement does not, however, “entail any security commitment” by the United States to Afghanistan, the State Department said.
Iraq was never given the status of a major ally, and American troops withdrew last year.
Afghanistan’s designation as a formal ally was the latest in a series of recent American moves that have eased — though not erased — Afghan fears of being abandoned at the end of NATO’s combat mission in 2014.
The moves also appear to have already yielded one dividend for the United States: Mr. Karzai has not recently lashed out at his backers, as he has in the past, at one point calling Americans “demons.”
On Saturday, he welcomed Mrs. Clinton, calling her “my old American friend” in his remarks. “We appreciate your concern and good will toward Afghanistan,” he said.
Later, as Mrs. Clinton said she was sorry to have to leave so soon, Mr. Karzai offered what he said was an old saying in Persian: “When a friend is alive, they will meet again.”
American and Afghan officials say they now must turn to working out a deal that would keep a residual American force here to continue training Afghan soldiers and tracking down insurgents after 2014. Talks on the arrangement have not yet begun, American officials say. Estimates of the number of troops that could stay vary from as little as 10,000 to as many as 25,000 or 30,000.
But Mrs. Clinton reiterated on Saturday that Washington did envision keeping American troops in Afghanistan, where they would provide the kind of air power and surveillance capabilities needed to give Afghan forces an edge over the Taliban.
“This is the kind of relationship that we think will be especially beneficial as we do the transition and as we plan for the post-2014 presence,” she said. “It will open the door to Afghanistan’s military to have a greater capability and a broader kind of relationship with the United States and especially the United States military.”
Mrs. Clinton made a short stop in Kabul en route to Tokyo, where an international conference will be held to raise money to support the Afghan government after 2014. At the American Embassy, she praised the work done by civilians in the war. State Department officials said that her remarks were intended to rebut what many in the State Department consider unfair criticism of their work in Afghanistan, where they have often been portrayed as not carrying their weight compared with the military.
But American soldiers and civilians alike have faced one common struggle: assuaging Afghan fears of abandonment. Many here fear that the country is headed toward a repeat of the early 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet-backed government, coupled with an American pullback from the region, left Afghanistan mired in a brutal civil war.
The Taliban grew out of the chaos, and they quickly took over much of the country.
Along with reassuring Afghans, Mrs. Clinton made clear that she was also sending a message to the Taliban.
The alliance and other American commitments to Afghanistan “should make clear to the Taliban that they cannot wait us out,” she said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks. “They can renounce international terrorism and commit to an Afghan peace process, or they will face the increasingly capable Afghan national security forces, backed by the United States.”
At the same time, Washington remains committed to the stalled Afghan peace process, she said. The insurgents suspended talks in March — halting negotiations before they really began — over delays in a proposed prisoner swap that would have the United States release five Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier known to be held by the insurgents.
Designating Afghanistan an ally, however, has the potential to raise awkward issues for the United States. There is Afghanistan’s hot-and-cold relationship with Pakistan, also an ally, and the possibility the two neighbors could have a falling-out, especially if Afghan officials believe in the years after 2014 that their Pakistani counterparts continue to aid the Taliban.
Afghanistan, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, is also the least developed of America’s major, non-NATO allies by a wide margin. Other allies — like South Korea, Argentina, Australia and Thailand — are far more capable of defending themselves and policing their own territory; Afghanistan is capable of doing that now and for the foreseeable future only with ample American help.