Afghanistan's presidential election candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (center), hold their documents after signing a power-sharing deal at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's presidential election candidates Abdullah Abdullah (left) and Ashraf Ghani (center), hold their documents after signing a power-sharing deal at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan. Massoud Hossaini/AP

With a New Afghan Leader in Place, Is a US Troop Deal Next?

There’s a new president in Afghanistan. Now U.S. military leaders need his signature on a deal to allow U.S. troops to stay. By Stephanie Gaskell

After nearly six months in election limbo, Afghanistan has new president. Now he just needs to sign a bilateral security agreement and a force of nearly 14,000 U.S. and NATO troops will be able to stay beyond the formal conclusion of the war at the end of this year.

President-elect Ashraf Ghani, the country’s former finance minister, said he narrowly won the election, according to results given to him by the Afghan Independent Election Commission, with 55 percent of the vote. The commission did not publicly release the results of the June 14 re-vote, which was scheduled after countless claims of fraud in the April 5 election. Ghani’s challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, will share power as chief executive officer. An inauguration ceremony is expected next week. But no date has been set to sign the agreement, according to a military official with the International Security Assistance Forces in Kabul.   

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had wanted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the deal by the end of last year. When that didn’t happen, a sense of urgency grew around the NATO defense ministerial meeting in February. Still no deal. And then Karzai said he wasn’t going to sign the deal, instead letting his successor deal with it.

In April, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, then-commander of all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, visited the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to brief reporters on the war amid a flurry of concern over whether the bilateral security agreement, or BSA, would be in place in time for American troops to drawdown and prepare for its post-war footprint. Dunford said if the BSA wasn’t signed by September, it will be difficult to plan for a post-2014 presence because he needed at least 102 days to make it happen.

The election results came in just a few days shy on when Dunford said U.S. troops would start to feel squeezed on whether they were planning for a residual force or completely packing up and going home.

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“Here’s where September comes in and why we describe it as high risk in September. We went back and we did the math, and we said, all right, how much equipment do we have? How many airplanes can you land every day? How many airplanes do you need to lift this equipment out? How many people do we have? And so on and so forth. And we have about 102 days’ worth of work to do. So it takes about 102 days, and that’s taking home all the equipment, taking home the people, eliminating hazardous materials, taking care of all the unexploded ordnance, making sure that we’ve transferred the bases that we have properly over to the Afghans. That’s all about 102 days,” Dunford explained then.

President Barack Obama – who had left the “zero option” on the table as the clock ticked down -- announced in May that 9,800 troops would stay. NATO members shortly after committed another 4,000.

During the campaign, both candidates said they would sign the bilateral security agreement.

ISAF Commander Gen. John Campbell called the election “an important milestone” after more than 13 years of war – and well over a year of hand-wringing over whether Afghanistan would agree to a post-2014 force, something the U.S. did not secure in a now-unraveled Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry said, however, that “elections are not the end. They must be the beginning, where Afghanistan and its people move forward on a reform agenda and make improvements to the electoral process.”

“The inauguration of the new president, appointment of his chief executive, and the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement and NATO SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] will open a new chapter in our enduring partnership with Afghanistan,” he said.