General de Gaulle is attributed to have said “Countries have no friends, only interests.” He offered this contribution to international relations theory from his war-time exile in London, where he depended entirely on the hospitality of the British government for the survival of Free France.

Gratitude is indeed fleeting in international relations. Today Hamid Karzai occupies de Gaulle’s place as ingrate in chief in the eyes of his US ally. The Afghan president’s tempestuous behavior and allusion to American conspiracies belie his total dependency on the United States for his political and physical survival. Karzai’s patience is testing the White House at a tenuous time in Afghanistan’s future and its relationship with the United States. The Obama administration is apparently now giving much more serious consideration to a complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan after 2014, in part as a result of Karzai’s erratic behavior. The Atlantic Council is hosting a panel discussion on Tuesday, July 30th to debate the ‘zero option’ and other possible US courses of action in Afghanistan post-2014. The Council will use long-term US interests in the region as the point of departure for its analysis on Afghanistan’s future.

Short-term political instincts push both the US and Afghan governments toward a ‘zero option.’ Karzai needs to talk tough to the United States to demonstrate to the Afghans that he is not an American puppet. He also needs to play hard ball with Washington to guarantee his survival after he steps down as President in 2014 and minimize any concessions to the Taliban as part of a US brokered reconciliation process.

But Obama, too, has domestic political interests of his own. The American people are sick of war. The once strong public interest and sentimental attachment to Afghanistan and its people has long since passed. It would be very easy for Obama to announce to the American people that it has selected a ‘zero option’ and then blame Karzai’s obstinate behavior for the outcome. The military might grumble in private. Republicans on Capitol Hill would howl that the President is abandoning Afghanistan. But the American people would shrug and assume that the US sunk more than its fair share of treasure and blood into Afghanistan’s future.

 The politically easy option wouldn’t necessarily best secure the United States’ long term interests in Afghanistan. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair to those who have given and lost a lot in Afghanistan. The United States has indeed invested a great deal of money, time, and blood in Afghanistan. So have its allies and partners. And so have the Afghan people. As the United States debates its future presence in the region, it would do well to think about more than just short-term political interests. Consideration of long-term interests comes about more naturally when the United States thinks not just of political expediency or even its own national interests, but also takes into account what others have at stake in Afghanistan and what they have done to support US interests there.

The first constituency that comes to mind is the more than 2250 Americans who have died and the approximately 17000 US wounded since the war began in 2001. Consideration of their investment in Afghanistan is sobering, as well as the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of other American soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan. The American people tolerated an extraordinary commitment in Afghanistan because countering terrorism and promoting regional stability was deemed in the US interest. This extraordinary sacrifice implies that significant US interests were – and still are – at stake, both in Afghanistan and the region.

Of course, the United States didn’t fight and bleed in Afghanistan alone. It fought alongside a remarkable coalition, mostly from NATO member states, all of whom contributed to Afghanistan under the first Article 5 declaration in Alliance history. Other partners have invested a great deal as well, such as Georgia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Sweden. The Obama administration’s decision on the future US presence in Afghanistan will prove decisive in shaping the commitments of other nations. Italy and Germany have already pledged forces to Afghanistan post-2014, but they will surely renege on that commitment if the United States chooses the ‘zero option.’ Such an outcome would undermine European allies that have taken a political risk in committing to Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Afghanistan’s neighborhood also has to factor into the thinking of US policymakers. What message would a US abandonment of Afghanistan send to its neighbors, particularly Central Asia, and Russia? And what practical impact would various US decisions have on regional stability? The United States can pack up its troops and leave Afghanistan, but the rest of the region will be stuck with any of the associated blowback from its collapse. Central Asia is fragile enough as it is, with problems of despotism, underdevelopment, and Russian hegemony. The United States doesn’t owe the dictators of Central Asia anything. But thinking about how US decisions will impact the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbors will bring about a more strategic debate about US interests in the region and how its policy choices will impact Central Asia’s future.

Finally, the United States should think about the Afghan people it will leave behind when it eventually departs from the region and the role they will play in the country’s future. Many Afghans have benefited from the American presence, and many have assisted the United States in its efforts to rebuild the country. They have participated in Afghanistan’s incomplete but impressive progress over the last decade and a half. Afghanistan’s continued progress is contingent on their success and empowerment, even in the face of opposition by the Taliban and other retrograde forces. Supporting this section of Afghan society is the best way to ensure that the country makes progress, even as the US presence is reduced.

In the coming months, US policymakers will be forced to take difficult decisions about the future presence of American forces in Afghanistan. Thinking beyond short-term political instincts to put an end to an unpopular and increasingly forgotten war will be hard. Despite President Karzai’s own lack of gratitude, the United States would do well to ignore the advice of General de Gaulle. By acknowledging the contributions of others to US goals and objectives in Afghanistan, the US will adopt a more holistic view of interests in Afghanistan and better arrive at an outcome that supports its long-term interests in the region.

Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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