03/13/2013 03:28 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Afghanistan Is Ready to Seize Its Destiny

After 9-11, we sent American troops into Afghanistan to drain the swamp of terrorists who attacked us, and our brave men and women in uniform have done everything we asked and more. There are now fewer than 100 known Al Qaeda left in Afghanistan and the Taliban's ability to provide them a safe haven has been severely diminished. Thousands of American advisors, from election experts to engineers have been building the underpinnings of Afghanistan's democracy and infrastructure, and have put Afghanistan on the road to a brighter, more secure, and more prosperous future.

But, having recently returned from my first trip as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to a region that remains essential to our overall national security, I realize that Afghans and Pakistanis are deeply fearful that history will repeat itself. In my conversations with government officials, civil society, and human rights leaders, I heard firsthand the anxiety and fear folks have about the transition and U.S. plans post 2014. Too many in the region still question our intentions and staying power. They do not want the United States to stay as an occupier; nor do they want us to abandon them. Afghans today fear U.S. abandonment more than they fear the Taliban, an anxiety that leads many actors in the region to hedge their bets to protect their interests instead of supporting a unified political strategy.

It will not be easy to change the narrative on the ground. But we must make clear that the United States will not forsake Afghanistan by emphasizing that our Strategic Partnership Agreement, which we signed last year, lays out specific terms for long-term political engagement. This spring, we and our Afghan partners must quickly conclude our Bilateral Security Agreement so that all parties understand what the U.S. military footprint will look like post 2014. President Obama has committed to a responsible and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops. We have to convince the region we will not leave behind a security vacuum in its place.

In fact, the transition to an Afghan national army is working. Afghans are now responsible for securing 87 percent of the country. Significant challenges remain in building the quality of the forces and transitioning the police to a community policing model, but they are making real progress in securing key population centers. Today, 80 percent of the violence takes place among only 20 percent of the population. With our long-term help, this will not be a force that is going to fall apart when coalition troops depart.

Our troops and civilians have done a terrific job in creating an enabling environment for Afghans to take over responsibility for their country. They have made enormous sacrifices, including multiple tours away from their families, life-altering injuries, and, in too many case, lives lost. Because of our collective efforts, Afghanistan has made tangible progress in educating its girls, improving maternal and child health, creating a road network and energy grid, fostering small business development, and connecting to the outside world through cellphones and the internet.

In order to sustain these gains, Afghanistan must have a successful presidential election next year that results in a legitimate transfer of power from President Hamid Karzai to his successor. In fact, the most critical milestone for Afghanistan's future stability is a peaceful and credible transition of power through elections in 2014. It is important that President Karzai adopt laws and make necessary appointments in the next month or two that ensure the independence of the Independent Election Commission and allow election disputes to be resolved openly and fairly. The elections must be free from internal or external interference, and the United States should condition long-term assistance on their credibility and the successful transition of power.

To be clear, significant political, security, and economic challenges remain as we transition to full Afghan control next year. The success of current reconciliation efforts with the Taliban will be a barometer of whether the Taliban can make a transition to a political movement. Insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan continue to threaten Afghanistan. Much work remains to build a regional consensus on the way forward. And the Afghan government must live up to its reform commitments as laid out in the Tokyo conference last year.

Despite these challenges, I believe President Obama has us on the right path for withdrawing our troops and transitioning to a U.S. mission focused on counterterrorism operations and to Afghan-controlled security operations. This shift in military engagement can also be accompanied by a streamlining of development assistance that puts U.S. taxpayer dollars to good use in helping Afghans strengthen their national government and improve conditions for free market growth. Afghanistan today is ready to seize its own destiny, and the United States will stand by as a friend and partner.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee