With Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington this week, he brings with him plenty of good news, as well as a long list of grievances. A skilled politician, he will try to project an optimistic picture of Afghanistan's ongoing security transition, Pakistani cooperation with peace negotiations, the Taliban's willingness to embracing politics over terror, and preparations for the 2014 presidential election. Most Afghans and regional actors, however, do not share his optimism -- but nor do they share Washington's growing defeatism and exhaustion.
Afghanistan is changing rapidly for the better. It is more developed, prosperous, democratic, and safe than at any other time in modern history. But this progress is also vulnerable to reversal. Uncertainty about the U.S. exit in 2014 has enveloped numerous constituencies -- both inside and outside of Afghanistan -- and spawned a series of hedging strategies that threaten to upend the transition.
Declarations about the need for Afghans to "stand on their own two feet" aside, the United States remains indispensible both to Afghanistan's successful transition and the stability and prosperity of the surrounding region. Moreover, it was Washington's earlier shortsighted policies -- first in supporting violent extremist groups, and then in abandoning the country -- which contributed to the destruction of the Afghan state and the immense suffering of the Afghan people. But the West's moral and legal responsibility to Afghanistan extends back even farther, to the corrosive Cold War rivalries of the 20th century and the so-called Great Game a century earlier.
Today, Afghanistan still stands at the global epicenter of terrorism in all its manifestations -- from ethno-terrorism and narco-terrorism to state-sponsored terrorism and even possible nuclear terrorism. But it is also situated at the epicenter of enormous economic opportunity. The regions of South and Central Asia, western China, and eastern Iran remain among the least connected and least prosperous regions of the world -- despite possessing immense natural and human resources. Stability in Afghanistan is the key to unlocking the region's strategic potential.
Instead of devoting this week's presidential visit to empty rhetoric and unsubstantiated declarations, the two presidents should attempt to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the transition by securing concrete agreements. In doing so, they should consider five mutually supportive principles that could form the basis of post-2014 Afghan-U.S. relations: deterrence, development, diplomacy, democracy, and devolution.