In Afghanistan, US prepares to go, and to stay

One of the biggest problems that Afghanistan has faced over a decade of war has been the perception that the United States would not stay the distance

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When the US president Barack Obama appeared on television Tuesday to give a speech from Kabul, it was to tell the US public that the longest war in America's history was drawing to a close. His words were triumphant on Al Qaeda - the goal of defeating the organisation was now in reach, he said - and conciliatory on the Taliban. But there were few words for the Afghans themselves. This speech, like the war itself, was focused over the heads of the Afghan people.

Mr Obama was in Afghanistan ostensibly to sign an agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, setting out how the relationship between the two countries will progress after American troops withdraw in 2014. Military cooperation will continue, but most importantly, the framework designates Afghanistan as a major non-Nato ally, setting the stage for a long-term relationship with the US. This is welcome, because one of the biggest problems that Afghanistan has faced over a decade of war has been the perception, in Afghanistan and among its neighbours, that the United States would not stay the distance.

This perception has a history. The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s was fought as a proxy war by the Americans, who funnelled weaponry and provided training to the mujahideen. But after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the country was largely forgotten by the US, paving the way for the rise of the Taliban.

The perception has had an enormous impact on the policy of Afghanistan's neighbours towards the country. Both Iran and Pakistan formulated their policy post-2001 on the basis that the US would soon leave. Pakistan, in particular, has been reluctant to give up its influence on the Taliban, fearing that the US departure would create a vacuum into which India, Pakistan's feared enemy, could wield influence. The Taliban believed the same thing: that they could outlast the superpower.

But if the Taliban believed they could push the US completely out, the new framework has proved them only slightly wrong. Mr Obama offered few details on future financial commitments (there were no figures released yesterday) and to what extent American advisers will be on the ground. Afghans deserve more clarity.

Afghanistan's future will be written by Afghans, the most qualified of whom fled during the war. Convincing regional actors of the West's continued partnership with vague vows of cash and expertise will change few minds. And it will do little to ensure the stable state Washington once championed.