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The Afghan government, meanwhile, repeatedly has demanded concrete commitments and rules for U.S. forces. It sees the document as necessary to establish Afghan sovereignty after years of letting policy be set by the international allies who bankroll the government.

If the strategic partnership is not signed by the NATO summit May 20-21, it would not necessarily derail negotiations, but it would strike another blow to a U.S.-Afghan alliance that has been on edge for much of this year.