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The U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership: Hold the Applause

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The strategic partnership agreement signed Sunday between the United States and Afghanistan is being heralded as an important breakthrough following months of intense negotiations. But once again, the agreement isn't public. And as is the case for all these recent U.S.-Afghan agreements intended to secure the 2014 U.S. troop withdrawal, the devil is sure to be in the details.

The Agreement reportedly "covers social and economic development, institution building, regional cooperation and security." But as the New York Times' Alissa Rubin points out, it's "sweeping by design, with few details to bog down negotiators... It is meant to reassure the Afghan people that the United States will not abandon them, to warn the Taliban not to assume that they can wait out the West, and to send a message to Pakistan, which American officials believe has been hedging its bets in the belief that an American departure would leave the Taliban in charge."

But it remains unclear what exactly the United States is committing to support: is it primarily the Afghan police and military? Or will the United States commit to development of reliable institutions, such as the judiciary, that can help root out corruption and provide a fair legal system that Afghans in the future will be able to count on?

Unfortunately, none of that was included in the earlier agreement signed in March between the United States and Afghanistan handing over some 3200 Afghan prisoners from U.S. to Afghan control. Although U.S. forces had captured, interrogated and held the men on the U.S.-run Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan without charge or trial, in some cases for many years, the U.S. government quietly agreed within a few short months to transfer the detainees to Afghan authority without any real understanding of what will happen to them there. Will they get fair hearings or trials? Will they be entitled to legal representation? Will they be transferred to other prisons where detainees have been tortured? None of that is clear.

Of course, the United States is under tremendous pressure from the Karzai government to transfer its authority to Afghanistan, and says it intends to end combat operations by the end of 2014. That's a good thing: no one wants U.S. troops in Afghanistan longer than absolutely necessary. But having been in the country for the past decade and seized and imprisoned thousands of suspected fighters, the United States has an obligation to help the Afghan government establish a justice system that will treat them fairly. It will surely be blamed later if it doesn't.

A new strategic partnership between the two countries sounds like a good sign. But it all depends on what exactly that partnership intends to accomplish.