October 24, 2013

Retired Gen. John R. Allen, a Marine, commanded the U.S. and NATO security mission in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013. He is a distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution, where Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.

The basic character of the future U.S.-Afghan relationship is in doubt — and will continue to be even if a security agreement is reached — because the talks over that agreement and other elements of the bilateral relationship have at times played into the hands of those who seek to profoundly limit or even sever it. That could lead to a general defeat for all we have collectively tried to accomplish over the past dozen years.

Technical details are the focus of much discussion regarding an agreement to govern U.S.-Afghan security cooperation after the current international mission ends next year. Will U.S. forces be liable in Afghan courts for any crimes they might commit against Afghans? Will the United States promise to help protect Afghanistan from its neighbors? Will U.S. forces, in certain circumstances, be authorized by Kabul to strike at al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan or Pakistan?

Often the talks and, by extension, the relationship seem to resemble a zero-sum dispute among attorneys. This is a mistake that both sides must seek to avoid repeating.

Without a bilateral security agreement, U.S. forces cannot remain in Afghanistan past the end of next year — and absent American logistical enablers and a follow-on NATO security agreement, other allies also would leave the country. Aid efforts and diplomatic engagement would be severely curtailed, potentially handing the Taliban a victory that it cannot secure on the battlefield or at the ballot box. Reports that the two sides are close to a deal following the recent visit by Secretary of State John F. Kerry are encouraging, but the contentious nature of the negotiations and Washington’s looming deadline for completing an agreement present a real danger of failure.

The U.S.-Afghan relationship should be more than a partnership of convenience. Rather than parse our respective motives in the war and nation-building efforts, it should be underscored that both sides wish for a sovereign, stable, secure, increasingly democratic and prosperous Afghanistan that can protect its people and territory. This would be good for both the Afghan people and a region badly in need of an example of political and economic development and a platform for regional economic integration.

The U.S. commitment to Afghanistan has been considerable. The United States had never before waged war with one nation against a common foe for 12 straight years. To be sure, the common foe is largely from within Afghanistan and gains its strength and support largely from mistakes and weaknesses of the Afghan state (as well as U.S. errors). But balanced against these negatives are many positives — the remarkable younger generation of Afghans, the diaspora that returned home to try to rebuild Afghanistan after 9/11, the huge improvements in women’s rights and children’s access to education that inspire people worldwide. Afghans remain far more pro-American than Pakistanis, Iraqis, Egyptians or most other major majority-Muslim states. As such, regardless of President Hamid Karzai’s public rhetoric on any given day, the Afghan people can be an important partner for the United States, which needs true friends in this volatile region.

For Afghanistan, the United States is the key enabler of its lifeline to the outside world. The U.S.-led effort has helped galvanize a presence of some 50 nations in the international coalition and set the conditions for related development activities. Never before has a superpower worked so hard to help Afghans gain sovereign control of their country, and the United States has asked for little in return beyond an enduring relationship. Washington learned from its mistake in 1989, when the Soviets were defeated and America went home. It has persevered, spending $700 billion, losing more than 2,000 American lives and suffering more than 10,000 seriously injured.

It does not matter whether the United States and Afghanistan codify this shared history in a formal treaty. Indeed, the existing Strategic Partnership Agreement provides a solid and equitable framework to guide future relations. Several close U.S. security partnerships are with non-treaty allies — Taiwan, Israel, Singapore, the Persian Gulf states. More important are the narratives that each side tells itself about the other and the bonds that ensue among the two governments and peoples. A protracted and unnecessarily acrimonious negotiating process, often interrupted or held hostage by disputes, negatively colors the perspectives that each side develops. This moment should present an opportunity to commemorate our partnership to date, all the blood spilled by the troops and other committed citizens of both countries who have waged war shoulder to shoulder — shona ba shona — against some of the world’s most brutal and oppressive killers, and to lock in our gains so that we can build together for the future.

The hour is late for such a change of heart, messaging and spirit across our two nations. But it is not yet too late.