Not since the days of Charles de Gaulle has America spilled blood and treasure on a less grateful national leader than Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In a bid to be viewed as ideologically independent, Karzai has famously criticized the West, and the United States in particular, in apparent attempts to strengthen his political hand at home.
In one year, Karzai will leave office. Around that same time, America's formal commitments to Afghanistan will end. That's a mistake. A guarantee that the United States will maintain a presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is not just important for the future; it could have significant effects right now. It could change the presidential candidates' behavior in the coming election campaign, and it could smooth the transition of power later.
The Afghan people are frantic to secure their future, and the longer the United States remains mute on its plans, the more chaotic Afghanistan may become.
Fear of abandonment. The Afghans's circumspection about any U.S. dedication to their wellbeing can be seen on a daily basis. For instance, Afghan citizens have been told that those who served U.S. forces and agencies in various roles, but usually as interpreters, can obtain visas to the United States -- once they complete a lengthy application and review process. It is known as the U.S. special immigrant's visa program, or SIV. This isn't just a reward; it's a vital component of the two countries' abilities to work with one another. Afghans are under constant threat of Taliban retaliation once it is known they have worked for the Americans; without SIV, many Afghans would be at serious risk.
Unfortunately, due to a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nuance, many Afghans who work directly for the Americans are in fact ineligible for the visa. Afghans who were hired by the International Security Assistance Force instead of by the U.S. military directly are precluded from participating in the SIV program. As word has spread throughout the community, it reflects poorly on the United States. These are common people, without dual citizenship or condos in Dubai, people who aided the United States at their own peril. Combine this disappointment with the sense that America is about to bail on the country altogether, and you have a potentially critical resentment among the Afghans.
Hedging strategies. Additionally, throughout Afghanistan, the number of reintegrated citizens -- that is, those who have left the Taliban and agreed to rejoin their home communities and to live in accordance with the Afghan constitution -- has flattened out this past year. Why commit to the government of Afghanistan if the United States is just going to abandon it? Along with this growing unwillingness to commit to a democratic government, we are seeing a brain drain from Afghanistan, along with capital flight. Professionals and academics are fleeing, and currency and even gold bars are carried out on a daily basis from the commercial airport in Kabul.
Afghans tend to believe that history repeats itself exactly as it has in the past. Karzai's predecessor, Najibullah, managed to hold the country together for several years after the Soviets left, even in the face of attacks from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, because the Soviets kept funding the Afghan army. This lasted until the Soviet Union finally collapsed -- then financial support ended and the Afghan army dissolved into its ethnic components, ultimately allowing the Taliban to take over in Kabul. Thus, it's not hard to imagine how the Afghans see their future this time: America abandons Afghanistan and provides no aid, then the Taliban creeps right back into the power vacuum. A post-2014 commitment now could at least ameliorate some of this fear of abandonment and ill will before any more Afghans hedge their bets and give up on the idea of a democratic government.
The U.S. mission. Of course the U.S. mission in Afghanistan needs to shift and change as well -- and it will change by the end of 2014. But drifting along, silent on the issue of any enduring commitment, is creating a situation that could well predetermine the outcome of Afghanistan's future -- for the worse. American commanders on the ground need a clearly articulated policy statement in the face of increasing Afghan worries. The silence is eroding the best efforts of American leaders in Afghanistan, who do not know what's in store for the Afghans and cannot implement forward-thinking plans.
Currently, more than 60,000 uniformed Americans are serving in Afghanistan. At present, the plan is to withdraw approximately half of those forces by next February. There are two major inflection points left between now and the end of 2014: turning complete control of the fighting mission over to Afghan forces in 2013, and providing security assistance for the Afghan elections, scheduled for next April. (Though possibly the elections will be delayed a few months due to snow accumulations in the higher mountain passes or simply to the inevitable delays that come with conducting an election in Afghanistan.) The good news is that the United States is well on the way to reaching its goal of empowering the Afghan forces to take over and, by early 2014, an American force presence of more than 30,000 should be enough to enable Afghan security forces to provide for their own election security.
The election. The bad news is that all of this important work could be undone if a post-2014 commitment of some kind is not made soon. Afghanistan is in a delicate state, and at some point next year there will be a new administration. Candidates are already testing the waters, putting their names out there, and judging their viability. Who takes the helm of the nation will have a lot to do with Afghans's experiences over the next year.
This is a pivotal point: A new administration in Kabul will be at its weakest immediately after the election results are in and there's a handover of power. Assuming a credible election process, no mean feat in Afghanistan, Karzai's successor will have to deal with all the problems and responsibilities that go with sovereignty. Why not have a post-2014 commitment in place soon, so that the candidates out there now are informed of an enduring U.S. commitment? Armed with this narrative, candidates will know they are not going it alone. Otherwise, we may see candidates being forced into an early reconciliation process with the Taliban due to a perception that the United States will be abandoning the country.
This is not an argument for staying a day longer than needed in Afghanistan, as there is near-universal agreement that the goal of changing the mission at the end of 2014 is a wise one. The problem in this era of sequestration and budget cuts is that there is little domestic interest in discussing a post-2014 billion-dollar-plus program that continues funding for Afghan National Security Forces. However, reticence on the size and nature of the post-2014 training mission will only promote the ongoing quiet panic that is detrimental to America's interests. Better a fast announcement now, with some basic specificity in terms of numbers of trainers and advisers, than a carefully detailed policy that gets announced too late.
The fact that the United States is still in Afghanistan after 12 years -- in no small part because it decided to invade Iraq -- doesn't diminish the U.S. responsibility to leave an Afghan government behind that stands the best chance of achieving some semblance of stability and support for several years to come. Not to mention America's own interests in the matter: Allowing Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of the Taliban will only serve to further jeopardize U.S. national security. And that, at least, should be unacceptable to American politicians everywhere.