The United States has invested a dozen years, thousands of lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan. The question now on the minds of the American people is how long the United States will maintain a footprint in Afghanistan given the difficulties the United States faces on the home front. The Afghan people, who have historically been averse to the presence of foreign troops on their land, are similarly wondering how long their government will allow the presence of U.S. troops in their country. Given the burdens faced by the United States on the home front and the toll the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has taken on the Afghan people, the United States should bite the bullet and completely withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014—or else meet the conditions demanded by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

In November 2013, Afghanistan and the United States agreed to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would allow for the presence of 8,000-12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw from the country by the end of this year. The agreement would reduce the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan but leave enough troops to train and advise the Afghan security forces and also protect U.S. diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel on the ground. After the agreement was presented to a grand assembly of elders, or a loya jirga, which recommended that President Karzai sign the agreement, the Afghan leader surprised both his allies in Afghanistan and American officials when he announced that he would not sign the agreement until certain preconditions were met. Among these preconditions were “an immediate end to raids on Afghan homes and good-faith efforts by the Americans to promote the peace process” with the Taliban. Karzai called for renewed negotiations and a delay in the signing of the agreement until the Afghan presidential elections coming up in April.

The Obama administration, in its statements and through visits to Afghanistan by high-level officials (including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice), has conveyed to Karzai that if the agreement is not signed, the U.S. military will withdraw completely from Afghanistan. The threat of a complete U.S. withdrawal has raised tensions between Karzai and his closest allies in Afghanistan itself. Sibghatullah Mujadidi, the organizer of the loya jirga that recommended Karzai sign the agreement, demanded that the Afghan president follow through on the recommendation or else Mujadidi would “resign all [his] positions and seek refuge in another country,” a promise he kept when he decided to move to Turkey in November last year.

Karzai’s position has also been met with criticism from Afghan security forces, which are almost entirely reliant on the $4 billion in U.S. aid that would come to an end if the BSA is not signed. In recent days and months, Karzai has stepped up his rhetoric and further exacerbated tensions with Washington by deciding to release 65 men from Bagram Prison that the United States considers “dangerous” criminals with Afghan and American blood on their hands.

Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. diplomat and the author of The Wars of Afghanistan, speculates that Karzai may “be maneuvering for future relevance,” given his 10 years in office as president and the fact that he is the most important leader of the Pashtun Popalzai tribe in Afghanistan. Karzai, according to Tomsen, is “probably attempting to position himself as a future bridge between the Taliban and the next Afghan government,” which is why the Afghan leader is “saying the United States should leave Afghanistan unless it could restart peace talks with the Taliban.”

An Elite and Popular Consensus

Against this backdrop, the people of Afghanistan witnessed a historic first, a televised presidential debate for the presidential elections to be held on April 5, 2014. Five of the 11 candidates participated, including 2009 runner-up Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani, and the current president’s brother, Qayyum Karzai. One of the main topics during the debate was the BSA with the United States. Qayum Karzai said that the BSA would “bring long-lasting peace to Afghanistan” and that “the security forces and the people of Afghanistan will not have the ability to function on their own,” a position supported by Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rasoul. Although agreeing to the signing of the BSA, Abdul Ghani “cautioned that for peace, both sides needed to be flexible.” In essence, all of the candidates in the debate broadly agreed that the BSA should be signed.

This idea commands some support. In a nationwide poll conducted in Afghanistan in December last year, “56.1 percent of the respondents said they support the signing of the BSA as soon as possible while only 12 percent said they were in opposition.” If the poll numbers are looked at on the regional level, support for signing the BSA is lower in the eastern part of the country. But in general, these figures indicate that that the Afghan people support the continued presence of American troops in Afghanistan after NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of the year.

Another important topic of the debate was peace talks with the Taliban. All of the candidates supported peace talks with the Taliban if they surrendered and cut off ties with al-Qaeda. While condemning the killing of innocent civilians, Ahmadzai conceded that some members of the Taliban are “forced because of corruption and injustice to take up arms” against the government. Abdullah said that he wanted a “clear peace process” with the Taliban, and that “we should make it clear that if there are people who don’t want peace, there is no other way than to face them.”
Most of the people in the audience also supported peace talks. An audience poll during the debate showed that close to 60 percent either supported peace talks or wanted a joint government with the Taliban.

The Obama administration, because of its frustration in dealing with Karzai, has backed away from the original December 31, 2013 deadline for the BSA to be signed. Karzai’s refusal to sign the BSA has also put into jeopardy the NATO status of forces agreement, which according to the NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen “will not be concluded or signed until the signature of the bilateral security agreement between the governments of Afghanistan and the United States.”

This delay leaves the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship in limbo. However, in recent days there have been some positive developments, with the United States engaging in “indirect talks” with the Taliban for the possible exchange of five detainees in Guantanamo Bay for an American soldier held captive by the Taliban. One of the demands that Karzai has made to sign the BSA is for the United States to take measures for reconciliation with the Taliban, and these “indirect talks” could be seen as a step in that direction. It has also been reported in the past few days that President Obama is looking at the option of leaving behind 3,000 American troops in Afghanistan instead of the 10,000-troops option mooted by the Pentagon initially.

With the growing possibility that Karzai will not sign the BSA, President Obama has ordered the Pentagon to prepare for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the White House is holding out for the possibility that the April elections will produce a new Afghan government willing to sign the agreement. But Washington has to face the reality that, regardless of how much the Afghan people support the BSA, they are also strongly behind Karzai’s two demands. Afghan political elites as well as the public support both the end of night-time raids and peace talks with the Taliban. Those issues will remain regardless of the outcome of the April elections. The end of Hamid Karzai’s political leadership will not automatically remove all the obstacles in the U.S.-Afghan relationship.

Ved Singh is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.