For the U.S. to Leave Afghanistan, It Has to Be Ready to Stay

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U.S. Army soldiers walk through a corn field during a patrol at dawn Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 in the village of Jaj in Kunar province, Afghanistan. (Photo: David Goldman / AP)

When former Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud suggested last week at a terrorism conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that the U.S. should have used the death of Osama bin Laden in May as an excuse to immediately pull troops out of Afghanistan, he was met with enthusiastic applause. Not so in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where his assertion that, “Killing bin Laden would have been the perfect moment [to set] the timetable… for withdrawal of troops and goodbye and good luck,” caused a flurry of consternation. As it is, few Afghans believe that the 2014 withdrawal date, set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and confirmed by U.S. President Barack Obama, gives the nascent national security forces enough time to confidently take over. Today’s brazen attack by the Taliban on a high security area of Kabul that houses government offices and the US embassy only underscores the fragile security situation.  Afghan lawmaker Ismael Qasimyar lashed out at Prince Turki on local TV station Tolo, calling him “irresponsible” and saying that a premature withdrawal of foreign troops risked sinking the country into further chaos.

It was a shockingly insouciant comment to come from someone who ostensibly knows Afghanistan so well – as a former intelligence chief for Saudi Arabia during the anti-Soviet Jihad, he was instrumental in funneling cash to the mujahidin fighting in Afghanistan, then, once the Soviets withdrew, witnessed the fallout from international neglect, a collapse into civil war, and the rise of the Taliban. More interesting, however, was that the denunciation came not from pro-West liberals in government, but from a senior member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, the group tasked with conducting negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban hold that no reconciliation talks will take place as long as foreign forces remain on Afghan soil.

Does this mean that the Afghan government is having second thoughts about reconciliation?Not exactly. But the rhetoric of “upset brothers” in reference to the Taliban has been supplanted by a renewed sense that the insurgent group is an enemy that must be weakened before it comes to the negotiating table. “While we appreciate the achievements made so far in the peace process, we need to negotiate from a position of strength,” says Deputy National Security Advisor Shaida Mohammad Abdali. “And when the international forces speak of withdrawal, it becomes propaganda for the enemy. So the enemy should know that when international forces speak of withdrawal it does not mean defeat. It does not mean abandonment. And they will know that their hope is lost to come back. And then we can start talking about reconciliation.”

Essentially, he says, if the Americans want to leave Afghanistan in a position of strength, they have to commit to stay.

(PHOTOS: The Casualties of War—Afghanistan’s Medevac Missions Up Close.)

The issue of the U.S.’s commitment in Afghanistan is up for discussion this week as senior American and Afghan lawmakers meet for a third round of discussions on a long-term security arrangement that would allow for a limited U.S. troop presence in the country beyond 2014. As U.S. public opinion on the war in Afghanistan wanes in the face of an economic downturn and battle fatigue, Afghans are increasingly concerned that they will face a repeat of 1990, when, after the defeat of the Soviets, the West turned away. The agreement, which Abdali says is “80 percent complete,” would give U.S. forces use of jointly run bases after the scheduled  2014 withdrawal. Largely, this presence would be geared for training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), but Abdali didn’t rule out continued combat operations, especially if the training doesn’t go as well as projected. “If we have an army and police as ill equipped and ill trained as they are right now, dependent on foreign troops’ transportation, then naturally we will not be capable to fight without help.”

The Americans, says Abdali, might have to stay for “10 years, maybe more,” depending on how long it takes for the ANSF  to get up to speed. “It will take years before we have a professional army, maybe even generations.”

The Afghan government would also like to see economic assistance, enhanced trade relations—“perhaps we could be a most-favored-nation trading partner”— and an enhancement of Afghanistan’s regional security, conducted through the might of American diplomacy, says Abdali. The Americans, recognizing Afghan fears of abandonment and seeking to establish terms for continued counterterrorism and counter narcotics operations, are eager to spell out assurances that they will not turn away, but the two sides disagree on several points, namely how binding the agreement should be.

The Afghan government wants to see a strategic declaration with the weight of an international treaty. It is only with that kind of backing, says Abdali, that the country can truly fend off insurgents or neighboring countries seeking to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the international troops’ withdrawal. Such an agreement will not be well received in the neighborhood, he adds, but “we are ready to take all the risk that it [the strategic agreement] carries, provided it’s worth it. We want a commitment, not just to the ANSF, but to all other aspects of life in Afghanistan — from economy to social development. We need to know in advance that the Afghan people will not be left alone again at times of difficulties.”

If Afghanistan sounds like the insecure partner in a ‘where is this relationship going?’ conversation, the U.S. seems to be less interested in commitment—for good reason. Not only would it be impossible to convince Congress that we need to indefinitely fund a government that is widely perceived to be inefficient and corrupt, there is a need to battle the perception that foreign forces, whatever the number, would be sacrificing their lives in vain. The newly arrived U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, saw this first hand at his confirmation hearings. Finally, he says, he “discovered an issue on which there is a strong sense of bipartisanship…that we should be out of Afghanistan a week from Tuesday.”

Despite the squabbles on the Hill, the U.S., says Crocker, is committed to Afghanistan for the long term. That doesn’t mean we should, or even can, sign a pre-nup. “There are things we can’t do under [the American political] system,” Crocker told TIME in an interview in Kabul. “Congress has to vote funds on a yearly basis. We can talk about intentions. But we cannot deliver a commitment that we can’t make good on.” What the Afghans and Americans can agree upon, says Crocker, is a strategic partnership that seeks to ensure a stable and democratic Afghanistan going forward. If such a vague premise sounds like it leaves a lot of wiggle room, that may be the point.

Like it or not, what happens in Afghanistan’s future will have a direct impact on the United States. If Afghanistan can come out of its decades of war able to stand on its own and with a functioning government, it will be seen as vindication for America’s expenditure in blood, treasure and political might. If it crumbles into civil war and becomes, once again, a center for transnational terror, it will be held responsible. And while strengthening the ANSF can help with stability, nothing is more essential to defeating the insurgency than good governance. A strategic agreement can’t stop corruption. But promises of economic, military and civilian assistance can provide leverage with a leadership acutely aware that it depends on all three for its very survival. In this way at least, the Afghan leadership’s venality works in our favor.

MORE: Afghanistan’s security forces—a gaping hole in Obama’s war strategy.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East Bureau Chief, based in Beirut. Find her on Twitter at @arynebaker. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.