Photo by Bloomberg, Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photo by Bloomberg, Illustration by Bloomberg View

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had plenty to discuss Monday, when Kerry dropped by Kabul for an unannounced visit. Karzai has developed quite a knack for making Americans think twice about their involvement in his country. Here’s the message we hope Kerry delivered: The U.S. still wants to help -- but with conditions.

On March 10, during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Karzai said that two recent suicide attacks by the Taliban were in the “service of America.” A year and a half ago, Karzai memorably said that if war broke out between the U.S. and Pakistan, “we are beside Pakistan.”

Strange comments from a supposed ally. The war in Afghanistan has killed or injured more than 20,000 Americans and cost $557 billion so far (including bigger outlays on reconstruction than the U.S. has spent on any other country). This toll, compounded by Karzai’s bizarre opinions, makes a fast withdrawal look all too attractive.

It isn’t so simple. The U.S. needs to safeguard its huge strategic investment in Afghanistan. That demands a realistic appraisal of what will happen as U.S. forces withdraw. It also demands a quiet but firm message to Karzai about conditions for continued assistance. The U.S. shouldn’t accelerate its plans to withdraw 34,000 more U.S. troops by February 2014 -- so long as Karzai does his part.

Start with plans for a force of 352,000 Afghan security personnel. That number has become fixed in planners’ minds, though estimates of the cost of attaining it have fluctuated by several billion dollars. Even a somewhat less ambitious goal would cost an estimated $4.1 billion, which exceeds current commitments: The U.S. Government Accountability Office cites a $600 million gap after counting pledges from allies and the U.S. contribution of $2.3 billion.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government’s promise to pay $500 million a year is wishful thinking. Its revenue in 2011 was less than $2 billion -- an amount that covered barely one-tenth of its spending. That $4.1 billion cost is not just for one year but for many, sapping investment in health, education and infrastructure. For these reasons, we have argued in the past for a smaller, more affordable and better-vetted force.

Managing declining aid will also be a challenge. The $15.7 billion in aid delivered to Afghanistan in 2010 amounted to almost its entire gross domestic product. On the bright side, a diminishing international presence will curb the corruption that an influx of foreign funds tends to promote. Also, because much aid money leaves Afghanistan through imports, expatriated profits and remittances, the cuts won’t fall entirely on ordinary Afghans. Still, real GDP growth may fall from 9 percent a year in 2000-2010 to 5 percent or 6 percent over 2011-2018.

The most affordable way to improve security while keeping privation and unrest to a minimum is to focus on two immediate challenges: encouraging a settlement between the Afghan government and its enemies, notably the Taliban, and promoting fair elections for president in 2014 and parliament in 2015.

As long as insurgent leaders, including the Taliban, agree to give up fighting, accept the Afghan constitution and sever ties to terrorist groups, they should be allowed to enter Afghanistan’s political arena. That’s an unappetizing prospect, to be sure, yet if Afghanistan’s past decade has demonstrated anything, it’s that the country’s troubles require a political solution.

That means Afghanistan must begin to stabilize its politics, beginning with credible, fair and inclusive elections. The last presidential contest in 2009 was marred by fraud -- and that was with a huge international presence. Outsiders will have less influence over the April 2014 elections. Smart suggestions for electoral reform abound, but at a minimum Karzai must surrender his powers to appoint members of the country’s supposedly impartial election commissions.

Karzai needs to know that a fair and inclusive electoral process is a condition for continued U.S. assistance after 2014. An Afghanistan headed in the other direction is no longer worth supporting, arming or defending.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.