This formal designation is part of an intensive political effort by the Obama Administration to reassure Kabul that Washington is committed to the security of Afghanistan after the bulk of international troops withdraw from the country by 2014.
Clinton's declaration, however, is unlikely to eliminate continuing fears in Kabul that Washington might choose to abandon it in the not too distant future. Given the recent U.S. experience with Pakistan, which was declared a “major non-NATO ally’ by the Bush Administration in 2004, skepticism about the future U.S.-Afghan military partnership is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
After it ousted the Taliban from power at the end of 2001, the US saw Pakistan as the partner in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. Now many in Washington are convinced that Pakistan is part of the problem but are finding it difficult to cope with that fact.
The real issue, then, is the following: how enduring is the US political will to defending Kabul against its adversaries, the Taliban and the Haqqani network, which have thrived in the sanctuaries that Pakistan has provided.
For now, though, Washington is saying all the right things. Whether those words will remains relevant in the political circumstances that might emerge in the United States and the region in the coming years is the big unknown.
At her joint press conference with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Clinton insisted that the United States will remain a friend and partner of Afghanistan after 2014. “ We are not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan. Quite the opposite," Clinton declared.
The new US designation, Clinton said, “will open the door to Afghanistan’s military to have a greater capability and a broader kind of relationship with the United States and especially the United States military”.
The new US decision, Clinton said, “should make clear to the Taliban that they cannot wait us out,” in Afghanistan. “They can renounce international terrorism and commit to an Afghan peace process, or they will face the increasingly capable Afghan national security forces, backed by the United States.”
The latest US move follows the signing of a strategic partnership agreement by Washington and Kabul in May. The two sides will also shortly begin negotiations on the terms and conditions under which a residual U.S. military force will stay behind in Afghanistan.
The speculation is that 15,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops might stay on to train and support the Afghan armed forces and to conduct counter-terror operations against the terror sanctuaries in Pakistan.
At the NATO summit in Chicago at the end of May, the Obama Administration sought to rally international financial support for the maintenance of the Afghan armed forces. The assessment is that Kabul will need a little over $ 4 billion every year for this purpose.
At the Tokyo conference of international donors to Afghanistan next week, Clinton will try and mobilise commitments worth $ 6 billion a year in economic assistance to Kabul.
The international record of developed nations keeping their financial commitments of this sort is not too good. Given growing Western weariness about the war in Afghanistan and the increasing donor fatigue, a measure of doubt abut the US strategy in Afghanistan is not out of place.
Besides holding the feet of its allies to the fire, Washington needs to persuade the Pakistan army to change its current policy of destabiling Afghanistan and compel the Taliban to the negotiating table. But few would want to bet that Washington will succeed on all three fronts.