After a year of negotiations and what was reportedly a tense telephone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry last week, it looked as though Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai was about to finalize a security pact with the United States that allowed for a residual troop presence post 2014. Yet despite agreeing to the terms of the deal, Karzai vowed on Sunday not to sign it until after the presidential elections of April next year.
In a speech to some 2,500 tribal elders who had gathered in Kabul to discuss the security agreement — which would provide American troops with access to nine military bases and enable them to continue intelligence gathering and training activities — Karzai accused the United States of undermining his presidency through a campaign of disinformation. He intimated that the Americans could not be trusted, even after the tribal assembly had urged him to ratify the agreement next month.
Sources close to the Afghan president claim that he is perfectly willing to fight the United States on this issue. According to The Washington Post, Karzai believes the Obama Administration is bluffing when it threatens to pull out all remaining troops by the time NATO’s mandate expires in 2014 unless an agreement is ratified before the end of the year. That may turn out to be a fatal miscalculation on his part.
Why should Karzai put the brakes on a defense relationship that benefits both his government and the United States? And why does he insist on embarrassing an ally that put him in power, kept the Taliban insurgency at bay and poured billions of dollars of aid into his administration’s coffers?
There are several explanations for why Karzai is behaving the way he is. One is that he genuinely cares for the safety and welfare of his people. Karzai has repeatedly complained about foreign troops intruding into the homes of Afghan civilians in search of insurgents. In some cases, civilians have been killed during such raids, infuriating the Karzai Administration and putting the president himself in the awkward position of either defending the operations or lashing out at his powerful backers. Perhaps Karzai just wants to make sure that international troops do not kill any more Afghan civilians?
Another reason for his mulishness could be that Karzai is concerned about his legacy. With his second term drawing to a close, Karzai may not want to be remembered as the president who allowed foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan for another decade. That could paint him as a politician who deferred to the Americans over the vocal objections of large swathes of the Afghan population.
Allowing foreign troops to stay for another ten years would also send an uninspiring signal to the Afghan security forces — that their own government doesn’t trust them to keep the peace.
The least flattering interpretation is that Karzai is making noise only to remind his countrymen that he still matters.
For twelve years, Hamid Karzai has been the most powerful figure in Afghan politics. He has appointed governors and distributed funds across the provinces. Millions of Afghans have known no other president other than Karzai yet he will have to step down next year. What better way to exercise his last bout of being Afghanistan’s prominent statesman than by scuttling an agreement with the world’s only superpower and exhausting the process for as long as possible? Signing the security accord would be Karzai’s last major decision as president. Putting it off would also delay the end of the Karzai era.