U.S. Major General James C. McConville, center, walks with troops at a base in Laghman province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Dec. 24. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
It’s a critical year for Afghanistan. The next twelve months could lead to lawlessness, chaos and civil war or they could produce successful elections, a democratic transition and an orderly handoff of security responsibilities to Afghan military forces.
After 12 years of fighting in Afghanistan, though, public pressure to end what President Obama called the “good war” is at an all-time high. A recent CNN/ORC survey showed that 82 percent of Americans oppose the war. That level of opposition is higher than public dissent during either the Vietnam or Iraq wars.
With Afghanistan’s presidential election just four months away and Afghan officials still unable to establish a bilateral security pact with the United States, however, it’s not yet clear what comes next for Afghanistan.
Here are the top four things to watch for this year:
1. The drawdown of NATO troops over the course of the year
Obama long ago pledged to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, though he wants to leave behind a small force that will help the Afghans with military training and counter-terrorism missions.
The nature and timing of the troop drawdown will depend in part on whether Afghanistan and the United States reach agreement on the role American troops will play after 2014. There are more than 84,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, including 60,000 Americans.
2. Negotiations over the role of the U.S. after 2014
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called for a quick agreement over what role the remaining U.S. troops will play once most of the American force withdraws. U.S. officials said in late 2013 that they were near an agreement only to have it derailed by new demands from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, including his insistence that his successor — who won’t be in place until April — sign off on the deal.
U.S. officials argued that the delay created by Karzai’s demand could further destabilize the country and put in jeopardy the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan reconstruction.
“The reality is these are days you can’t get back,” Hagel said recently. “It takes options away the longer this goes.”
U.S. officials said that if the two sides can’t reach agreement soon, they may initiate the so-called “zero option,” under which all U.S. forces would leave and Afghans would be on their own to resolve their problems. Hagel called that option a “possibility.”
Though the “zero option” isn’t one preferred by U.S. policymakers, it could at least win broad support among war-weary Americans, more than half of whom want U.S. troops out before the end of 2014, according to the CNN poll.
3. Afghanistan holds presidential elections
Since American troops landed in Afghanistan shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Karzai has been the public face of the Afghan government. But the country’s constitution limits him to two terms, and he has made a point of declaring he would not try for a third.
The election to replace Karzai is scheduled for April 5, though top Afghan election officials have already disqualified more than half of the declared candidates for deficiencies with their petition signatures or their dual citizenship, among other things. That leaves about 10 contenders in the race.
Though the United States hoped that Karzai would sign a bilateral security agreement before the elections were held – taking it off the table as a campaign issue – his insistence on his successor signing the pact could set the stage for a divisive election fought over the very nature of future American involvement in the country.
4. The future of humanitarian aid
The U.S. commitment of aid to Afghanistan in coming years will depend on the two sides approving a post-2014 security pact and the Afghans’ ability to demonstrate stability during the presidential elections.
Other countries that have made commitments to post-war Afghanistan, including the European Union, made their contributions contingent on Afghans reaching difficult-to-achieve benchmarks in governance and corruption, according to Khalid Koser of the Brookings Institute.
If the U.S. ends up withdrawing all of its troops because it can’t reach a security agreement with the Afghans, those other countries — and international aid organizations — could follow suit, cutting off their spending there and potentially devastating the national economy, Koser wrote.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has argued that the $6 billion in annual aid to Afghanistan was committed with the understanding that U.S. troops would maintain a presence there after 2014. Should Afghanistan’s security situation deteriorate because U.S. troops left and the annual aid package evaporated, “they can’t survive,” Dempsey once said.