President Hamid Karzai's announcement that he would not sign the security agreement with the United States, and his subsequent prohibition of his ministers to do so unless his demands are met, has stirred a democratic debate in Afghanistan.

Many political and military leaders are urging him to sign it promptly, as was also recommended by the Grand National Council (Loya Jirga) which he convened recently in Kabul. Karzai is being attacked for risking an American total withdrawal, which would pose huge security risks for Afghanistan, whose armed forces still need NATO support and training.

Those urging his signature are following the lead of most Afghans. The latest annual Asia Foundation public opinion survey shows that 59 percent of Afghans at least sometimes fear for their safety and security. And an overwhelming majority of Afghans have confidence in their army (88 percent) and police force (72 percent) and are satisfied with the performance of the national government (75 percent). Candidates for the spring presidential election should take note that 76 percent of Afghans say it is acceptable to criticize the government in public.

There is also concern among the country's leaders and population about what an American withdrawal would mean for their economy. For several years, the percentage of Afghans who say their country is moving in the right direction has been rising. It is now 57 percent as compared to 46 percent in 2011 and 52 percent in 2012.

Most of the important indicators show the progress that has been taking place — and which Afghans fear may be jeopardized — has been impressive. The survey shows 74 percent are satisfied with the availability of clean drinking water, and 72 percent are pleased with the education their children are receiving. An indicator of progress is that 57 percent of Afghans now use mobile telephones to obtain information.

Americans should take pride in what has been done to help Afghans restore some degree of security and of economic and social progress in the country. The survey shows that when asked why the country might be moving in the right direction, Afghans point to reconstruction (32 percent), good security (24 percent), an improved education system (13 percent) and the opening of schools for girls (13 percent). Most Afghans (76 percent) report that their household economic situation is better now than in the Taliban period.

When it comes to development, the United States has consistently been the most recognized donor since 2009.

It is clear that a precipitous and total American withdrawal from Afghanistan would substantially prejudice its future and reopen its doors to terrorist organizations.

Karzai, who is acting like the lame duck he is by quacking loudly to attract attention, should consider his country's best interest. And Americans should not burn our bridges prematurely but should continue to do what we can to help this struggling, infant democracy still under the cloud of 35 years of war.

We have a huge investment there in lives and money, and we should be careful not to throw it away.

<i>Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., a resident of Sonoma, served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 1973-1978. He is a former dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is currently a trustee of the Asia Foundation.</i>