Afghanistan is facing a crisis of confidence in its future. In 2014, the only president the country has known in the post-Taliban era, Hamid Karzai, is due to leave office; there is no front-runner to succeed him and it is not clear whether it will be possible to hold an honest and secure election. More significantly, that same year, the bulk of the Western troops, currently 130,000 strong (including 90,000 Americans), are also supposed to depart. The Taliban, meanwhile, has been weakened, but remains secure in its Pakistan redoubts. Whether the Afghan National Security Forces will remain strong enough to fend them off largely on their own remains unknown. Many Afghans fear the answer is no. That is why home prices in Kabul are declining, capital flight is increasing, and there is growing talk of emigration among the country's elites.
Will the signing of a U.S.-Afghan security partnership agreement, announced Sunday, dispel those doubts? Not likely. To be sure, it is good step forward. That the American and Afghan governments were able to overcome their differences, especially on the controversial issues of "night raids" and detentions of Afghan suspects by U.S. authorities, is certainly positive. That the United States is promising to remain committed in Afghanistan to some degree at least until 2024 is another vote of confidence in the country's future. But much remains unknown about the American commitment.
If the United States were to promise to keep 30,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014 and, in cooperation with its allies, to fund the Afghan forces at their soon-to-be-reached level of 350,000 personnel indefinitely, that would be one thing. But if there are to be only, say, 5,000 U.S. advisers in Afghanistan post-2014 (no actual figure has been decided on yet), and if funding levels for the ANSF are going to be cut, forcing a reduction of the force down to just 230,000 personnel (as currently envisioned in plans that call for cutting ANSF funding from $6 billion a year to $4.1 billion a year) that's another thing. Afghans--and Americans--don't know which policy Washington will pursue, so there is understandable concern about the future.
To allay those concerns, the Obama administration will have to offer more specificity about the nature of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. Of course, no president can compel actions on the part of his successors or future Congresses, but there are examples of Washington making long-term foreign policy commitments and sticking to them--whether the deployment of troops in Western Europe after World War II (where some still remain), or the provision of foreign aid to Egypt and Israel under a formula dictated by the Camp David Accords (followed to this day). Until it includes those kinds of specific pledges, the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan's future will remain more rhetorical than real--and fears about Afghanistan falling apart after 2014 will continue.