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“Nobody could credibly argue that the Karzai government has created any sense of allegiance throughout the country,” he said. “It is a corrupt, crony dictatorship. The inflow of Western money has stitched together a variety of different patron networks that has helped hold the place together, but once that source of money dries up, the real battle for political power and authority will resume.”

The U.S. has about 35,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a surge peak of 100,000 in 2011. Commanders would like to keep about 14,000 troops after this year, primarily to train and accompany Afghans on counterterrorism raids.

Without Americans, the Afghans would lose not only American might but also American know-how. The U.S. has established intricate intelligence networks to identify Taliban fighters and bomb-making sites. Those assets would leave along with U.S. troops.

The State Department said Friday that it is nearing the point at which the Pentagon will begin planning a full pullout absent a bilateral security agreement.

“If we cannot conclude a BSA promptly, then we will initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. “We recognize that at this time it is up to President Karzai to determine what is in Afghanistan’s best interest.”

If the U.S. leaves, Mr. Carafano said, “This will be an important psychological victory for an Islamist movement who will claim they defeated the U.S. like the Soviet empire. The West is a paper tiger like bin Laden said and it’s only a matter of time.”