By Senator John Kerry
It wasn't long ago that skeptics questioned whether NATO had a future at all in the post-Cold War era, let alone in the difficult period of the Iraq invasion that revealed old fissures in the alliance.
But NATO has already confounded its skeptics. During the past year in Libya, the alliance demonstrated an ability to adapt to meet a new challenge with great speed and effectiveness.
In Chicago, though, the great looming question will be the alliance's ability to meet not just new challenges, but to resolve an old one: a war in Afghanistan that has lasted more than a decade.
The signing of the strategic partnership agreement this month signaled the gradual transition from a war-fighting posture to a supportive role.
NATO allies must now reaffirm their commitment to the long-term security of Afghanistan and send a powerful and unified message. The 10-year, legally binding agreement is a major step forward in winding down the war without "losing" Afghanistan. It means America's relationship with the Afghans -- in ways they trust -- is changing, not ending. NATO's relationship with Afghanistan must undergo a similarly constructive and positive transformation -- for the long-term.
Understandably, Americans and NATO allies are increasingly wary of making long-term commitments in a volatile region so far from home. But I also believe the free world understands that a premature departure would jeopardize the chances for a responsible transition.
Consider the implications of a precipitous departure driven by antipathy to the current war dynamic. It could pave the way for a Taliban return to power against our most fundamental security interests, since that is how al-Qaidagained a foothold in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Allowing them to return would not only threaten our long-term interests, but also increase the risk of conflagration where the world can least afford it -- next door in nuclear Pakistan. It would also threaten Central Asian states, Russia, India and Iran, sparking regional conflicts that would undermine our security and call into question our credibility throughout the region and beyond.
We know the difficult history that led to decades of war in Afghanistan, and the unintended consequences of the free world's abandonment after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Many Afghans, fearing a second abandonment, had been hedging their bets and cutting deals to secure the gains they had made this past decade. As Afghans explained to me -- quite wisely -- they can tolerate risk, but not uncertainty.
That is why NATO must assure Afghans that the alliance is not going to abandon their investment in a stable Afghanistan.
In the end, all the recent military gains will mean nothing if we lose sight of the major challenges that remain.
First, the Haqqani network and other insurgents finding refuge in western Pakistan remain a critical challenge to security there and across the border in Afghanistan. Pakistan has a key role to play in freezing their activity and working closely with Afghanistan and the international community to find a political settlement to end the war. Pakistanis have serious doubts about our long-term intentions and fear our withdrawal will create a political and security vacuum that threatens their interests. We have to work with Pakistan to alleviate their concerns while making clear that the issues of safe havens and political reconciliation must be resolved.
Second, corruption remains a serious problem in Afghanistan. While nobody expects Afghanistan to become a Jeffersonian democracy, improving governance and fighting corruption will be critical for the Afghan government to continue receiving international aid and establishing legitimacy in the eyes of its people.
Finally, Afghans must start preparing now for presidential elections in 2014. These elections will determine Afghanistan's political destiny. If the elections are not free and fair, everything could come unraveled. We cannot repeat the mistakes I saw firsthand in the 2009 elections, when controversy marred everything from voter registration and electoral rolls to ballot boxes and the final count. What Afghanistan needs is a truly independent electoral commission selected with transparency and accountability. The international community can help by supporting the technical process without interfering in domestic politics.
What happens in Afghanistan will affect the future of the broader region and shape NATO's legacy. I've seen NATO's single largest present-day commitment, and let me tell you: NATO's support for training and funding Afghan security forces after 2014 will be critical to their long-term success.
In 2001, Afghanistan was the right war in the right place at the right time. Now we must all work to achieve that war's right ending at the right time. NATO must do its part.
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.