Hamid Karzai's Big Bet

Hamid Karzai is gambling that Afghanistan is too important for the U.S. to walk away from. He might be reading us wrong.

If one could describe in a single word the present state of relations between the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, “convoluted” quickly comes to mind.

It is no surprise that the US-Afghanistan strategic partnership that both nations have built over the past twelve years has had its fair share of obstacles. US diplomats in the past have done their best to publicly portray a positive picture, and Obama administration officials are quick to release readouts and public statements depicting a constructive partnership with the Afghan government whenever Karzai travels to the White House. In most respects, Afghan officials have returned the favor, beaming with smiles whenever they appear with high-ranking officials from the White House, State Department or Pentagon.

In private, however, the relationship has often been categorized as muddled, if not confrontational. And Hamid Karzai has all too often been the source of or inspiration for that trouble.

In perhaps the most memorable description of the wily Afghan leader that has ever been uttered by a US diplomat, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry wrote to his colleagues that President Karzai was the incompetent head of a corrupt and inept central government either unable or unwilling to make the kinds of decisions necessary for progress. Karzai himself was described as a feckless partner who “continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance, or development.” Eikenberry’s memo, which was eventually leaked to the mainstream press shortly after it was sent to Washington in the latter part of 2009, demonstrated just how frustrated the U.S. team in Afghanistan was about Karzai’s inability to share the burden of restoring security and stability to his country.

Fast-forward to four years later, and Karzai is once again making his US and NATO backers wince by complicating a process that should have been resolved in a relatively smooth fashion. Back in 2009, the issue was whether Karzai would be able to stand up at a critical time for his country—a time when President Barack Obama was ready to deploy another 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan to weaken and degrade a Taliban insurgency that was expanding throughout southern and eastern Afghanistan. Today, however, the stakes are far higher, and Karzai’s last major decision as president—whether or not to either sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States—could very well be the most important he has made during his tenure.

As has been reported throughout the week, Karzai has demanded that the United States meet his preconditions before any broader U.S.-Afghan defense relationship can be established. Some of those demands, such as his desire for Washington to help the Afghan government sustain a peace process with the Taliban, parallel with longstanding U.S. policy. Others, such as a demand that coalition troops stop military operations that could result in the targeting of Afghan homes, or requests for the transfer of all Afghan prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, are either politically or logistically imprudent—or both—for the United States to implement.

As difficult as he has been in holding up the bilateral security agreement, Karzai may genuinely believe that this is the only way that he can personally stand up for the interests of his people. Although 74 percent of Afghan civilian casualties are caused by what the United Nations calls “anti-government elements,” civilians who are killed in coalition operations carry far more weight with the Afghan president. An errant U.S. airstrike that unfortunately claimed the life of an Afghan child on November 29 will only strengthen Karzai’s belief that the foreign forces need to be restrained to the utmost, while providing him with a reassurance that the course of action he is taking is the right one.

Judging from his behavior, Karzai is comfortable in his assumption that Afghanistan is simply too important for the United States to walk away from completely. Without this assumption in mind, it is difficult to rationalize why he has so far failed to back down in this current standoff with the Americans.

If indeed this is the case, President Karzai is playing a very dangerous game by potentially putting his personal reputation and legacy above Afghanistan’s national security. For as much as U.S. military commanders have supported a residual U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014, the Obama administration has never taken the option of withdrawing all troops off the table. Just as President Karzai is confident that the White House would not support such a withdrawal for reasons of national security, President Obama is confident that he could execute the “zero-option” with strong political backing from the American people.

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