Afghan president Hamid Karzai visited Washington, Jan. 9 and 10, to meet with President Obama and other officials and hammer out the framework for a long-term relationship with the United States.
The Obama administration is weighing future economic and military assistance and how many U.S. troops to leave behind after 2014, when the U.S. and NATO cease combat operations.
The administration, which is considering a total troop pullout, is under immense pressure from Pentagon and conservative foreign policy circles to maintain a sizeable military force.
U.S. peace leaders are urging zero troops left behind. In a letter to supporters, Kevin Martin, Executive Director of Peace Action wrote, "It should be clear to all Americans, that no residual troop levels can guarantee a political outcome in Afghanistan that will be to our liking. That's up to the people of Afghanistan."
Strategically located in Central Asia, Afghanistan remains vital to US corporate interests. For that reason, according to Zalmay Gulzad, professor at Harold Washington College in Chicago, the US foreign policy establishment wants a permanent presence.
"U.S. troops have constructed 4 major military bases and numerous smaller ones. They really want to use those bases to keep an eye on China, Russia, India and Iran," said Gulzad, who was born in Afghanistan.
With U.S. and NATO forces leaving and with the Obama administration "pivoting" toward a more aggressive presence in the Pacific Region, a major shift in power relations in Central Asia is expected.
China, Russia, India and Iran all want to expand trade and cooperative relations with Afghanistan. The US is actively inhibiting this competition.
However, Pashtun nationalist forces are pressing Karzai to develop relations with the country's neighbors. Karzai attended the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) meeting in Beijing in June 2012 where Afghanistan and China upgraded their relationship to a strategic and cooperative partnership.
Most of the Afghanistan infrastructure was constructed by the Soviet Union and Russia has offered to rebuild it.
In addition, Afghanistan is sitting on astounding riches of mineral deposits, natural gas and oil, which has transnational corporations salivating. For example, a 2010 Pentagon report called Afghanistan the "Saudi Arabia of Lithium."
While some transnational corporations are hesitant to invest because of continued violence, Afghanistan signed an agreement with a consortium of Indian state run and private companies to develop the county's largest iron ore deposits.
Similarly, Afghanistan signed a contract with China to develop the world's second largest cooper deposit.
Afghanistan is also seen as a prime energy transfer corridor. Among the projects is the proposed $7.6 billion, 1,040 mile-long Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline (TAPI).
Meanwhile grassroots democratic forces, including intellectuals, nationalists, women, an underground labor movement, and youth who studied abroad, are stepping up the fight for sovereignty. Despite the dangers, the democratic forces want the 2014 elections to occur on schedule and are planning to field candidates.
"The situation is very tense right now," said Gulzad. "The democratic forces are between two rocks. They know that when the US leaves, the interference from Pakistan and Iran will grow, especially funding the Islamic fundamentalists. On the other hand if the US stays the democratic forces fear they will have limited influence."
"Elections are coming in April 2014 for president and parliament. If there is a vacuum of power, it is possible the elections won't be held. Or they could have a temporary government, including keeping Karzai for a few years," said Gulzad.
Karzai is hated by wide sections of the population who accuse his government of rampant corruption. The BBC reported 40 percent of Afghan diplomats refused to return home after completing their missions in the US and European countries, apparently convinced instability will grow.
The Taliban and other terrorist groups commit violence to intimidate the progressive forces, create instability and scare off foreign investment with the aim of recapturing power. But Gulzad says these groups have dramatically lost support among the Afghan people who suffered greatly under Taliban rule in the 1990s.
Activity of democratic forces has grown despite contending with violence and assassination.
"They form the Progressive Democratic Movement and have elected several legislators to the Parliament. They are working hand in hand to bring peace so economic development will be possible," said Gulzad.
Afghan women still face oppression, abuse and acts of violence. Women's rights advocates face rising violence and assassinations.
Yet women have made important gains. For the first time, women were appointed governors in one province and one district. And before the 2012 elections there were more women in the Afghan parliament than the US Congress.
A growing number are defying threats and going to school. Over 20 percent of university students are now women.
Among the progressive forces is the socialist oriented Democratic Party of Afghanistan (DP, formerly People's Democratic Party or PDP), which has grassroots organization across the country. Since the government offers no protection, the DP has held congresses each year outside the country.
The DP is working inside and outside Afghanistan with members constantly coming and going mainly from Europe. Others never left, spending years underground.
The Party's main concerns are bringing peace and sovereignty, expanding education and rights for women, improving the daily conditions of life for people and farmers, building housing for war widows and orphans.
It has three major newspapers and several members of Parliament as part of Progressive Democratic Movement.
Gulzad said pictures of Babrak Karmal, the former leader of PDP and president of the country are a hot commodity in the streets along with that of Ana-Hita, the first woman member of PDP elected to the parliament in 1970s.
According to Gulzad, "people are missing the time when communists were in power. Back then there was more security, benefits, and peace than now. There are more beggars today than ever.
Despite the dangers, the democratic forces agree continued U.S. and NATO presence only fuels the violence.
"If anything, the more troops we leave behind, the greater our destabilizing impact will be. Zero is the right number," concurred Martin.
Photo via UK Ministry of Defence.