US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with the Afghan foreign minister in Kabul on Saturday to hammer out the details of a key pact signed a year ago that defines the future of the US commitment to Afghanistan, amid uncertainty that either party will be willing or able to keep to its provisions.
The talks between Burns and Afghanistan's Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasoul are the second round of negotiations over the provisions of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, a set of principles and general commitments signed in May 2012 by President Barak Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Delegates first met in Washington in October.
The agreement defines Washington's commitment to Afghanistan over the next 10 years as well as its expectations of Kabul, including free and fair presidential elections next year.
Sticking points may include the amount of funds the US provides to Afghan security forces. The two countries are also still squabbling over a separate agreement that would protect from prosecution a residual force of as many as 10,000 US troops who would stay behind after the final withdrawal.
In remarks before the meeting at the foreign ministry, Burns promised that Washington would stick by Afghanistan and its nascent national security forces after 2014 and the end to the international combat mission.
But the deal allows either country to opt out with a one year's notice, which means that Karzai's successor in next year's presidential elections could scuttle the agreement.
Karzai's election in 2009 was marred by widespread allegations of corruption, vote tampering and election fraud. He denied the charges but the acrimonious aftermath tainted his relationship with the West, which was the most vocal of his critics.
The pact emphasizes a free, fair and transparent election in 2014. Karzai however has been relentless in his criticism of US involvement in Afghanistan's political process, alleging Washington was maneuvering secretly to strengthen his political opposition even though he cannot run for a third term.
Burns denied that Washington was backing any candidate to replace Karzai. "We are supporting the process and not any particular candidate," he said, adding the elections next year should be "transparent, credible and inclusive."
Burns also repeated Washington's support for the opening of an office for the Taliban in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar to provide a venue where Karzai's High Peace Council could meet Taliban representatives to try to find a peaceful end to the 12-year war.
Yet the Taliban have met representatives of about 30 countries, participated in international forums in Tokyo and France, and held backdoor talks with Afghanistan's opposition politicians. But they have steadfastly refused to meet Karzai's representatives including the High Peace Council, calling his government a "puppet."
Karzai recently accused the United States of trying to bring his political opponents and the Taliban together, an allegation the US denied and Burns tried also to dispel in his opening remarks saying, "We reaffirm our support for the office in Doha for the purpose of negotiation between the High Peace Council and the Taliban."
Burns said that on the security front, Washington is on track to transition full control of Afghanistan's security to Afghan Security Forces by the end of the year.
"Afghan forces are already in the lead in 90 percent of all combat missions," he said. "We expect them to be in the lead in all combat operations by the end of the year."
There are 350,000 Afghan National Security Forces deployed throughout the country, although there has been criticism that the training, which was rarely more than two months, was inadequate and Karzai has often complained of a lack of military equipment to outfit his forces. NATO officials nonetheless say that this spring, when the weather allows more military activity, is the first of the 12 year war in which Afghan forces have done the majority of the fighting.
The next meeting is scheduled for Washington in October. Rasoul at the last meeting said he expected a conclusion of the talks within eight to 10 months but US is not giving a time frame.
As talks lumber along, Afghan analysts said it is difficult to see the results of an agreement signed almost one year ago.
"So far we haven't seen any practical steps forward from the Strategic Partnership Agreement," said analyst and former Parliamentarian Abbas Nuyan. "Maybe there are some but if there are we are not aware of it."
"The most important factors . . . are security in the country, tensions between Afghanistan and its neighbors, upcoming elections and the fight against corruption, which is a serious issue not just for us but for the international community," said Nuyan.