September marked two historic events in Afghanistan's history: a peaceful transition of power followed by signing a long-overdue security agreement with the U.S. Elected on Sept. 21, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president on Sept. 29 after signing a power-sharing agreement with his rival presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah. The next day, on Sept. 30, Kabul and Washington concluded the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which allows a residual U.S. force of 9,800 troops to stay Afghanistan after 2014. President Obama said that "Today we mark an historic day in the U.S.-Afghan partnership that will help advance our shared interests and the long-term security of Afghanistan."
Yet Afghanistan's future is anything but certain. It would be a mistake to take the eye off Afghanistan now that the agreement is signed.
I was in Afghanistan for six months in 2011 working for a U.S. military contractor. That year, when Obama had announced in June the withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. troops by 2012, the Taliban immediately declared victory and vowed to continue fighting. Indeed, Obama's pledge to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan two years earlier, in 2009, had elicited a similar response from the Taliban.
Afghan security forces were not ready to stand alone in 2011. They are not ready now. The Taliban has proved time and time again that it is able to continue an offensive, particularly when U.S. disengages, and to infiltrate Afghan security forces.
This year, as the presidential election approached and U.S. troops prepared to leave, the Taliban increased their attacks. As part of their offensive they targeted Afghan policemen and their families, according to press reports. In August, an assailant who had served in the Afghan military carried out an attack against a leading training facility for Afghan military officers. It resulted in the death of over a dozen officers and of U.S. Army Major Gen. Harold Greene — the most senior U.S. officer to have been killed in 13 years.
The BSA ensures that a small contingent of troops will remain to advise the Afghan government, but the drawdown continues. Indeed, according to the plan, U.S. troops will be reduced by more than 50 percent in Afghanistan in 2015 and removed completely by 2017.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan continues to face a number of crucial challenges. Transparency International rates Afghanistan among the world's top 10 most corrupt countries. As coalition troops leave the country, so does capital investment, raising more questions about Afghanistan's economic future. As Taliban violence is on the rise, concerns about al Qaeda's infiltration also increase.
Yet despite the myriad of problems, 60 percent of Afghans bravely came out to vote in the presidential election, despite Taliban threats. They chose to peacefully elect their own leader. And former President Hamid Karzai also stepped down peacefully after 12 years in office, without naming a successor as some had feared.
During my time in Afghanistan, I saw that Afghans can agree on at least one thing — they want peace. The Taliban's primarily victims have been the Afghan people, especially women. After the removal of the Taliban in 2001, after billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan, it was possible to point to real achievements. Perhaps the top one among these is improvement in women's rights.
This hard-won peace remains fragile. It is vital for U.S. interests to ensure that Afghanistan remains peaceful and stable in a region rife with insecurity, especially in the face of the growing regional threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It would be important for the U.S. to ensure that al Qaeda does not take hold in Afghanistan again; that instead, Afghanistan can be relied upon as a partner in the fight against terrorism. This is why the U.S. military presence is so crucial.
Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter @annaborsh.