November 28, 2013

John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, is chairman of the Center for American Progress. Tom Perriello, a former U.S. representative from Virginia, is counselor for policy at the center, where Caroline Wadhams is a senior fellow.

After more than a decade of conflict and political setbacks in Afghanistan, it has been hard for observers to be hopeful about its future. But following a recent trip , where we met with civil society leaders, public officials, tribal elders, youth and women’s groups, we found ourselves cautiously optimistic about the country’s trajectory. Afghans were preparing for the presidential and provincial elections in April. They anticipated that a bilateral security agreement under discussion between the U.S. and Afghan governments would soon be signed, creating the security umbrella essential for a stable state.

President Hamid Karzai has threatened to derail this positive trajectory, however, by stating that he intends to delay signing the security agreement until after the elections. While Karzai claims to be concerned about issues already settled, Afghan observers see it as a Machiavellian play to maximize influence over the elections. The agreement, crafted through months of high-level negotiations, defines a long-term partnership between the countries after the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014; it was endorsed Sunday by approximately 2,500 Afghans in a loya jirga, or council of elders, packed with Karzai loyalists.

But this may be one manufactured crisis too many for U.S. policymakers. Delaying the security agreement will have real consequences for the Afghan people, introducing greater uncertainty into an already volatile political environment. Delay makes it considerably more difficult for U.S. forces to prepare for a smaller presence after 2014 and increases the likelihood that a frustrated U.S. government will decide to pull out of the country entirely. Delay also prevents NATO countries from signing a status-of-forces agreement, which could prompt them to withdraw their forces and cut their assistance.

We believe that the proposed agreement is the best way to maintain both U.S. and Afghan security interests. It defines the parameters for a small U.S. force dedicated to advising and training Afghan security forces while giving the United States flexibility to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

If Karzai isn’t willing to act in good faith and sign the pact by the end of this year, the United States must be prepared to suspend all negotiations, begin planning for withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2014 and await the election of a new president to determine whether the deal can be finalized.

Karzai is making a self-serving and dangerous gamble, and Afghan lives are on the line. He has agreed to step down next spring, as the Afghan constitution requires, but he appears desperate to retain power until the last possible moment. By holding off on finalizing the security deal, Karzai likely believes he holds a trump card that will make both the international community and Afghans less likely to impede any efforts he might make to manipulate the outcome, conduct or timing of the elections.

The fact is, the Afghan people know they need this agreement with the United States. Without it, international funding for Afghanistan, especially for its security forces, will be at risk — and the state cannot come close to funding its operating expenses. While progress has been made in building a stable state, and the Afghan people acknowledge that they want a sovereign state and a reduced foreign presence, it was clear on our recent trip that a wide swath of Afghans believes that a security agreement with the United States is essential. The loya jirga corroborated the sentiments we heard.

Afghanistan has made real progress that deserves to be sustained. It has achieved significant development, broadening access to health care and education, expanding the formal economy, and, though still a daily struggle, increasing opportunities for women. Across the country, U.S. and NATO troops have moved into the background while Afghan security forces are taking the lead. The Afghan government is taking on more development responsibilities. The very nature of the conversation in Afghanistan has changed, focusing on how to change the government and make it function better, instead of opining on what the international community can do about Afghan problems.

U.S. negotiators know that the agreement is both critical to preventing Afghanistan from collapsing again and a vital security interest for the United States. A return to civil war in Afghanistan would create a humanitarian disaster, place enormous pressure on Pakistan and other neighbors and allow militant groups to flourish. The failure to reach an agreement with Karzai would not be ideal, but the United States has other means to protect itself. It is the Afghan people who would be left vulnerable.

Karzai’s recklessness may undermine Afghanistan’s political transition, which has long been cited as the primary determinant of a peaceful future for Afghans. We hope he will listen to his own loya jirga and sign the security pact by year’s end. If he does not, the United States must look past him and see whether a new partnership can be salvaged in time with his elected successor. At that point, those who care about Afghanistan can only hope that an agreement will still be possible.