Reporting from Washington — Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his advisors are pressing the Obama administration to designate Afghanistan as a significant U.S. ally and to draft a new security agreement, requests that have made this week's White House meetings particularly delicate.
A senior Afghan official said that both objectives reflect Karzai's desire to use his visit to Washington to lay the groundwork for a closer, long-term security relationship with Washington.
Afghan officials are particularly interested in the "major non- NATO ally" designation, a status enjoyed by Japan, Australia, South Korea, Israel and other strategically important countries outside Europe. The designation brings with it access to U.S. military technology and other benefits.
Pakistan, Kabul's fierce rival, is already on the list, a fact that exacerbates Afghan worries that it holds second-class status in Washington's eyes.
The issues are being discussed this week, but U.S. officials are leery of steps that would significantly expand future U.S. security commitments. No new agreements are considered likely as part of this week's visit.
U.S. officials want to use the discussions to reassure Karzai that the U.S. remains committed to Afghanistan beyond plans to begin withdrawing troops next year. But they don't want to commit themselves to keeping American forces deployed indefinitely.
At the same time, President Obama does not want to lose leverage over Karzai. U.S. officials fear that acceding to the Afghan president's requests will only encourage his tendency to ignore steps vital to quelling the Taliban insurgency.
In meetings Tuesday at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Karzai that the United States "will not abandon the Afghan people."
"Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future," she said. "This partnership is a long-term commitment by the American people to the Afghan people."
White House and Pentagon officials have emphasized that the drawdown set to begin in a little more than a year will be based on conditions in Afghanistan, and is likely to be gradual. A senior White House official said concerns that the U.S. plans on "packing up and leaving" are misplaced.
"The beginning of a drawdown in 2011 doesn't impact our continuing commitment to Afghanistan's security, and of course we'll work with the Afghans in the long-term," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Karzai has sought assurances for years that the United States would not turn away from Afghanistan, as it did after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from the country in 1989. Karzai fears that White House plans to reduce troops starting next year could mark the beginning of the end of U.S. support for Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
Clinton said Tuesday that past U.S. administrations blundered by abandoning Afghanistan in the years before Sept 11, 2001.
"President Obama has made it clear that we will not allow that kind of detachment and oversight again," she said.
Karzai and his advisors hope to draw Washington into a formal military relationship that will last well beyond the end of combat against the Taliban and the drawdown of U.S. forces.
"Of course, Afghans should assume greater responsibility for addressing our needs, but a long-term U.S. commitment remains pivotal to helping us manage our affairs," said a senior Afghan official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Though Afghan officials press for formal arrangements, the White House hopes to mollify Karzai with assurances of long-term support, instead of formal agreements.
"Hopefully this trip will reassure him that we are there to support him and the country for the years to come and not pull up and run in July 2011," an official familiar with the discussions said.
Karzai and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak also worry that Afghanistan will be unable to pay salaries and other costs of keeping up the expanded Afghan army once the U.S. begins to draw down its own forces.
Since 2001, U.S. officials have spent or allocated $28 billion for the Afghan security forces, and the administration has requested an additional $14 billion for 2010 and 2011.
U.S. officials are working to build up the Afghan security forces, setting goals of 171,600 in the army and 134,000 in the national police. A force that large would require billions of dollars of funding, a price tag that Afghanistan may never be able to pay on its own.
Fearing that Congress will lose interest in funding the Afghan forces once U.S. troops begin withdrawing, Karzai is seeking a dedicated funding stream for future years.
Karzai and former President George W. Bush signed a strategic partnership agreement in 2005 and officials are discussing possible revisions.
In the original agreement, U.S. officials agreed to "consult with respect to taking appropriate measures" in the event that Afghanistan's security is threatened. That language falls far short of the sort of explicit U.S. security commitments that Afghan officials are seeking.
One Defense official said that Karzai wants an agreement that assures U.S. help if Afghanistan is attacked by a neighboring country or if a new internal threat arises. But such explicit guarantees are considered unlikely.
The senior Afghan official predicted a new agreement could be reached by the end of this year.
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.