At long last, Kabul and Washington have signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) under which some 10,000 U.S. troops can remain in Afghanistan after the international combat mission ends on December 31.
Here are five things to know about the accord signed on September 30.
How many U.S. troops will stay, and how long?
The BSA goes into force on January 1, 2015 and remains in force "until the end of 2024 and beyond" unless it is terminated by either side with two years' notice.
The document itself does not establish how many U.S. troops can be in Afghanistan during that time, but U.S. President Barack Obama announced in May that there would be only 9,800 soldiers after December 31. He also said that number would decrease rapidly by being halved at the end of 2015 and reduced to only a vestigial force by end of 2016.
The Associated Press has reported that Washington's plan calls for fewer than 1,000 soldiers to remain after 2016 to staff a security office in Kabul advising the Afghan army.
The U.S. troops will not be the only foreign troops staying in Afghanistan.
Kabul signed a similar agreement with NATO on September 30 to allow 4,000 to 5,000 additional troops -- mostly from Britain, Germany, Italy, and Turkey -- to stay in Afghanistan in a noncombat role after 2014.
That means the total number of foreign soldiers immediately remaining in the county could be up to 14,800.
Why are the U.S. soldiers staying?
The U.S. forces' mission under the BSA is to "enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter internal and external threats against its sovereignty."
That includes "advising, training, equipping and sustaining" Afghanistan's National Defense and Security Forces, which are those under the ministries of defense and the interior, and "as appropriate," those of the National Security Directorate, which is a special counterterrorism office.
Importantly, however, the BSA says that "unless otherwise mutually agreed, United States forces shall not conduct combat operations in Afghanistan." Instead, the emphasis is upon supporting the Afghan forces, sharing intelligence, and strengthening Afghanistan's air force capabilities.
Similarly, the new NATO mission, which is led by the United States, will focus on training and support for the Afghan army and police, not on combat.
What about earlier sticking points regarding the BSA?
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign the BSA in part because he wanted it to ban U.S. soldiers from entering Afghan homes in future counterterrorism operations. That was in line with his frequently blaming U.S. forces for Afghan civilian deaths in military operations.
However, a special Loya Jirga (traditional grand assembly) convened by Karzai in November to review the draft of the BSA found its language regarding soldiers entering homes acceptable and recommended the president accept it.
That language -- repeated in the text signed on September 30 -- commits U.S. forces to having "full regard for the safety and security of the Afghan people, including in their homes."
It also stresses that "U.S. military counterterrorism operations are intended to complement and support" those of the Afghan government, meaning Afghan forces should take the lead in operations that could include entry into homes.
Another sticking point had been whether U.S. forces remaining in Afghanistan would be immune from Afghan law, as they have been since entering the country in 2001.
The BSA addresses this question directly, saying Kabul "agrees that the United States shall have the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction" over U.S. soldiers who commit "any criminal or civil offenses" in Afghanistan.
Washington commits only to keeping Kabul informed "if requested" of the progress of U.S. criminal proceedings against soldiers accused of crimes and to making efforts so that representatives of Afghanistan can attend or observe the proceedings in U.S. military courts.
However, the BSA does give Afghanistan jurisdiction over "United States contractors and United States contractor employees."
If Kabul had not agreed to immunity for U.S. soldiers, Washington would almost certainly have refused to sign the BSA. Iraq's refusal to give U.S. soldiers immunity helped to scuttle plans to leave a U.S. military-training presence in that country beyond 2011.
Will America Defend Afghanistan Against Third Countries?
The BSA is not a defense pact which would commit the United States to defending Afghanistan if it were attacked by another state. But the text does say Washington "shall regard with grave concern any external aggression or threat of external aggression."
It also says that in the case of external aggression, Washington and Kabul would work together to develop "an appropriate response," including considering political, military, and economic measures.
Will the United States Maintain Military Bases In Afghanistan?
The BSA authorizes U.S. forces to maintain existing facilities and undertake new constructions so long as they are agreed upon by both sides.
That clause in the BSA is likely to be closely read by Iran, which accuses Washington of seeking to create a permanent presence in the region under the guise of fighting terrorism. Iran's state-run Press TV said in a commentary on its website on September 30 that "Germany and Japan provide excellent examples of how the number of American bases mushroomed in these countries under the pretext of fighting the Cold War."
The United States has repeatedly said it does not seek permanent bases in Afghanistan, despite claims by Karzai in May last year that Washington wanted nine bases and that he would not accept it.
"We seek no permanent bases," then-White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters the day after Karzai's remarks. "Any continued presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 would be subject to an agreement between the Afghanistan government and the U.S. government, and would only be at the request of the Afghanistan government."