The Obama administration hopes a new agreement spelling out the American role in Afghanistan after most combat troops leave in 2014 will dampen fears that the United States is turning its back on the country, officials say.
The absence of an agreement about the U.S. role after 2014 is "causing anxiety in the region," Marc Grossman, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a panel at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "People don't know what's going to happen."
The agreement will create a "framework" for a long-term security and economic commitment. "We're not walking away as we did in the '90s," said Gavin Sundwall, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kabul.
The United States assisted Afghan fighters in their drive to rid their country of Soviet overlords in the 1980s but offered no support to the country after the Soviets left, and Afghanistan spiraled into civil war. The Taliban emerged from the chaos to seize control in 1996.
Talk of the United States removing most of its combat troops in 2014 has raised similar fears among Afghans, foreign policy analysts say. "The one thing we have not done a good job with is articulating what our enduring commitment and strategic interest is," said Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Analysts say the administration is trying to find a middle ground in an election year between touting the drawdown while assuring the region it is committed to the country. "I think they will continue to walk this middle line," said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst with Brookings Institution.
Talks on a troop presence beyond 2014 got underway this week after U.S. and Afghan officials reached a separate agreement on the oversight of night raids.
The agreement will probably not get into specifics such as troop levels after 2014 or the legal protections U.S. troops will operate under. Subsequent agreements will cover that ground, Sundwall said.
The current status-of-forces agreement has no expiration date, the Pentagon says, but Afghanistan may want to change that for 2014 . The Pentagon has said any deal must contain legal protections for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has said the failure to reach a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq led to withdrawal of U.S. forces there last year. Critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said the failure was because of White House foot-dragging.
Analysts say they do not expect a similar result in Afghanistan because President Hamid Karzai said he wants some U.S. forces to remain. "Karzai needs us more than the Iraqis did," O'Hanlon said.
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