If Karzai steps down, his replacement — should one not come from his own family — is likely to adopt a more hostile approach toward the Taliban, increasing the odds that the insurgency will fester. Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the rigged 2009 elections and could throw his hat in the ring once again, is a major Taliban opponent. But if Karzai seeks to stick around, doing so will be no cakewalk. Karzai will face stiff resistance from both a parliament that increasingly demands an expansion of its oversight powers and a rejuvenated political opposition, the National Front for Afghanistan (NFA)…

With Afghanistan’s three major political blocs and three major insurgent groups moving in opposite directions, the country is facing the prospect of total fragmentation. Here’s the worst-case scenario: The U.S. military reaches a settlement with the Afghan Taliban that does not address the country’s political future, Karzai holds on to power illegitimately while pressing for his own peace deal with the Taliban, non-Pashtuns rise in opposition to both Karzai and the Taliban, and the national security forces fracture along ethnic lines. At the same time, the three insurgent factions turn against one another as the Haqqani network exploits the chaos and maintains a rear defensive position in Pakistani safe havens. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s own domestic Taliban resurges and Islamabad faces yet another wave of terrorism and Afghan refugees.

Such a catastrophe should encourage leaders in Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad to do everything in their power to reach a broad-based political settlement. To avoid this scenario, the U.S.-Taliban talks should somehow be transitioned to an Afghan-led process involving not only the Karzai government but also the NFA. Afghans will have to come to a consensus about the future of their system of government and power-sharing, with final approval from a loya jirga or grand council.