WASHINGTON -- President Bush and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan signed a landmark agreement yesterday to keep American troops in that country indefinitely and commit the United States to the long-term reconstruction of the fragile Afghan democracy.
The two leaders, meeting at the White House, entered what they termed a ''strategic partnership" to battle Islamic extremism, build democratic institutions, and work together to replace the burgeoning Afghan opium trade with viable economic alternatives.
They downplayed recent public disagreements over the US handling of Afghan detainees, instead adopting a formal plan ''to strengthen US-Afghan ties to help ensure Afghanistan's long-term security, democracy, and prosperity."
The four-page agreement, which did not specify US funding or troop levels, nevertheless marked a key diplomatic victory for Karzai, who has expressed fears the United States would abandon Afghanistan prematurely, as it did after backing anti-Soviet guerrillas in the 1980s, specialists said.
Karzai, the first elected president of Afghanistan, has said American military and economic assistance is critical to strengthening the country's nascent political institutions in the face of rising violence and a skyrocketing drug trade. These two trends threaten the painstaking progress that has been achieved since US-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in December 2001.
Bush said America was commited to Afghanistan for the long run.
''It's important for the Afghan people to understand that we have a strategic vision about our relationship with Afghanistan," Bush said after meeting with Karzai.
But Karzai did not get everything he wanted. Before arriving in the United States on Saturday, he told reporters he was seeking greater Afghan control of US military operations -- which have incited some anti-American sentiment in the country -- and called on the United States to hand over Afghan citizens in US custody.
While acknowledging that US troops are in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan government, Bush insisted that they will take orders only from American commanders who will ''consult" with Afghan officials. Bush also said his ultimate goal is to return all individuals detained in the war on terrorism to their home countries, but not until suitable facilities are available to ensure those linked to the Taliban or Al Qaeda will be kept securely under lock and key.
The two leaders sought to downplay recent strains in the US-Afghan relationship. They included reports that the US Army has been slow to investigate the deaths of two Afghans in American custody in 2002, and a recently retracted Newsweek story about the US military's desecration of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, that was blamed for setting off deadly demonstrations in Afghanistan.
Karzai said ''we are sad" about reports of the abuse of prisoners in US custody, but ''we recognize that the American people, kind as they are to Afghanistan, have nothing to do with that." While criticizing the Newsweek report, he stressed that ''those demonstrations were, in reality, not related to the Newsweek story. They were more against the [upcoming parliamentary] elections in Afghanistan; they were more against the progress in Afghanistan."
Responding to a report in The New York Times that quoted US Embassy officials in Kabul as criticizing Karzai for not showing enough leadership in fighting the illegal drug trade, Karzai acknowledged that ''Afghanistan is suffering from the cultivation of poppies, which is undermining our economy." He said he hoped the crop would be cut by up to 30 percent this year through heightened eradication and crop substitution programs.
Opium poppies are the raw material for heroin. Their cultivation skyrocketed in Afghanistan last year to a record 323,700 acres, yielding nearly 80 percent of the world's supply.
The Associated Press reported yesterday that Afghan and US-led coalition forces arrested 15 suspected drug traffickers and seized a large quantity of opium in a major counternarcotics swoop in the southern province of Helmand.
Despite the obstacles to stabilizing Afghanistan, specialists said the Bush-Karzai pact is a significant step forward in the two countries' long but stormy relationship.
''The Afghans have been particularly sensitive that American and international commitments might falter after seeing the drop-off after the Soviet Union left in 1989 and having suffered for a decade from international indifference," said James Dobbins, Bush's former special envoy to Afghanistan. ''This anxiety was further heightened by America's almost immediate refocusing in the aftermath of Afghanistan's liberation on Iraq, and the limitations that placed on the scale of the American commitment in Afghanistan."
The agreement grants the US military access to bases and ''freedom of action" in the country indefinitely, and commits the United States to step up training of Afghan security forces to battle the remaining followers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who used the country as a sanctuary to plan the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Pentagon says about 16,700 US forces are serving in Afghanistan along with 1,600 allied troops. The United States also pledged to help the Afghan people strengthen the rule of law and human rights, and continue to expand political participation in the Muslim nation.
Perhaps most importantly, Washington promised to provide long-term economic aid -- including promoting private-sector cooperation between US and Afghan firms -- to find alternatives to the opium crop that has become its main export. Karzai will complete his three-city US tour, which started in Boston on Saturday, with a visit today to the American breadbasket, where he will meet with farmers in Nebraska.
Since 2001, the United States, the largest international donor, has allocated more than $5 billion to rebuild Afghanistan, while the American military deployment costs an estimated $1 billion a month. Some international aid specialists have estimated that the country needs far more financial assistance -- up to $20 billion in the next five years alone.
Karzai hailed the new agreement as a way to make sure that Afghanistan continues to receive reconstruction assistance and training from US forces for its military and police. That would help Afghanistan ''stand on its own feet eventually and be a good, active member of the region, contributing to peace and stability."
Specialists said the extent to which the United States lives up to its promises will have implications not only for Afghanistan but US policy in the wider Muslim world.
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.