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Afghanistan: The war is over! Long live the war!

Details of a key security agreement make clear that the United States may not be exiting Afghanistan any time soon. That is, if the Afghans ever sign it.

Afghanistan loya jirga 2013 11 20Enlarge
Delegates listen to Afghan President Hamid Karzai deliver a speech during a four-day long loya jirga, a meeting of over 2,000 Afghan tribal elders and leaders in Kabul in November 2011. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — A Loya Jirga, or grand council, gathered in Kabul Thursday to debate Afghanistan’s future, notably the document that could keep thousands of United States soldiers — and billions of dollars — in the country indefinitely.

But as President Hamid Karzai addressed the more than 2,000 invited delegates, he dropped a bombshell that again could torpedo the entire deal.

“If you approve this agreement, I want this agreement to be signed after the presidential elections,” he said.

Afghans go to the polls in April, and Karzai is constitutionally barred from running again. It was not clear whether he meant that he himself would sign the accord, or leave it to his successor.

In any case, the US is not likely to be willing to wait that long.

Washington had wanted the deal set by the end of October.

So even if the council does approve the document, there's no guarantee anything will come of it. The draft would then have to go to the Afghan parliament for approval.

The Loya Jirga is enshrined in Afghanistan's constitution, but it's regarded as a purely consultative body, with no legal teeth.

Critics argue that President Karzai convened the assembly to give an illusion of popular support to what is all but a done deal: the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would, in effect, turn Afghanistan into a US protectorate for the foreseeable future.

On Wednesday, hours before the council’s opening, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he and Karzai had finalized the draft to be reviewed by the Loya Jirga.

The details have been painstakingly worked out over months, with plenty of sound and fury on both sides. Afghanistan has demanded that its sovereignty be respected; Washington has insisted it is ready to walk away from Afghanistan completely if it does not have freedom to maneuver.

But, as the draft agreement makes clear, both sides see few alternatives to continuing this close, if troubled, relationship.

Without US money and military support, experts warn, Afghanistan will almost certainly descend into war and chaos following the withdrawal of international troops scheduled for the end of 2014. This, in turn, could have dire consequences for a volatile region.

For the US, abandoning Afghanistan now would also be tantamount to an acknowledgement that the past 12 years have been an exercise in futility, which seems to be the general consensus among political analysts specializing in Afghanistan.

Still, that would be a difficult admission for a president in search of a legacy.

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A preliminary version of the “Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement,” dated July 25, was given to the media on Tuesday, and makes for instructive reading.

It commits the US “to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world.”

The “training, equipping, advising, and sustaining” bit will require extensive financial support for years, if not decades, to come.

According to the independent Afghan Study Group, the costs for maintaining the Afghan security could run to more than $4 billion per year.

The Afghan government cannot afford the price tag, and, the policy group adds, “Afghanistan’s ability to close the gap between domestic revenue and spending is becoming a more distant goal, likely to be reached only after 2032.”

Keeping Afghanistan together will also mean thousands of US troops — exactly how many is still under discussion. The former NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, has submitted plans for 6,000, 10,000 or 20,000 soldiers, with different risk factors associated with each level.

Current NATO commander Gen. Joseph Dunford says, despite some progress, the Afghan National Security Forces’ “capabilities are not yet sustainable.”

While both sides may realize they are locked together, neither Afghanistan nor the US wants to appear too eager to give away the store.

President Karzai is already under attack at home as an American puppet. This has prompted him at various times to stage elaborate tantrums in which he