Next spring’s presidential election will be a key test for Afghanistan and possibly for the future of U.S. involvement there, but it is unclear how voters will decide on new leadership.
In less than a year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is term limited, is scheduled to step down.
Nader Nadery, a top official representing Afghanistan’s Fair and Free Elections Foundation, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that the election will bring a new leader with a fresh mandate to govern and negotiate on behalf of the Afghan people.
Rep. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the committee chairman, said Karzai must decide whether his government is willing to support a longer-term U.S. troop presence.
“The ball is in his court,” Menendez said. “But he and the Afghan people should understand that if we fail to reach an agreement [on future relations], it will not be for lack of trying — on America’s end.”
For America’s part, Menendez said President Obama should signal to Afghans and U.S. allies what a post-2014 U.S. troop presence would look like.
With 63,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan, White House and Pentagon officials said Tuesday that Obama may pull the military out ahead of schedule — as soon as next summer. Earlier this year, he said combat operations would cease by the end of 2014.
Nadery said that while Obama’s consideration of removing all troops in 2014 showed confidence in Afghanistan, it would send a terrible message to America’s “true partners” in the country — the Afghan people.
However, Peter Lavoy, acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said the U.S. is not pulling out, but rather transitioning to the role of ally in Afghanistan.
As of February, Afghanistan had more than 350,000 personnel in its Afghan National Security Forces, including military personnel and police. Six years ago, the figure was about 120,000.
With this growth, Afghan leaders have been able to take responsibility for leading security operations in their country, with less reliance on the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces, according to Nadery.
In addition to the growth in security forces, Lavoy noted a qualitative change: The Afghan army is now leading combat missions, performing more operations themselves, identifying threats, and going after those threats successfully.
While the Army and police are taking more responsibility, there is still doubt as to whether Afghanistan’s security forces can continue making progress.
“They are capable on their own,” Lavoy said. “But we continue to provide support that improves their effectiveness.”
Ultimately, those at the hearing agreed, the coming political transition will determine whether there is a successful security shift.
“As long as the Afghan people and their government want the United States as a partner, we will not leave Afghanistan,” Menendez said.