Why Karzai Doesn't Trust America

He's a lousy ally - but the U.S. has done a lot to make him worse.

For the moment at least, Secretary of State John F. Kerry appears to have patched up the fraying relationship between the U.S. and Afghan governments that just two weeks ago appeared to be at the point of rupture. Flying into Kabul on a previously unannounced visit and engaging in what the New York Times describes as “nearly 24 hours of talks and meetings” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Kerry revived the floundering negotiations for a bilateral security agreement that will provide for a limited but long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan following the end of the NATO combat mission in December 2014.

The security pact, which must be reviewed by a loya jirga (an assembly of some 3,000 Afghan tribal elders) and then approved by parliament, could even now unravel over the still-unresolved issue of whether remaining U.S. troops will enjoy the airtight legal protections that Washington is insisting on. But if the agreement holds, it would represent a striking feat for Mr. Kerry, who is rapidly emerging as a more consequential figure than his predecessor.

It also promises to bring some stability to a wartime alliance that has long pulsed with mistrust and suspicion. The acrimony regularly leads Karzai, once seen as America’s hand-picked partner in Kabul, to denounce the Western military presence in Afghanistan as a foreign occupation. Three years ago, he accused the West of meddling in the country’s internal affairs and bizarrely threatened to join forces with the Taliban forces that NATO and his regime were supposedly united in opposing. That particular outburst caused the White House to warn that it was thinking of retracting Karzai’s invitation to meet Mr. Obama in Washington.

During another quarrel a year later, he gratuitously vowed to come to Islamabad’s aid in the event the U.S. attacked Pakistan. And his excoriations of Washington were so vehement earlier this year that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan worried that they would stoke attacks on Western troops by rogue Afghan soldiers or even presage assaults on NATO installations by Afghan army units.

The accumulating animus had gotten so bad that it threatened to derail the security-pact negotiations. Two weeks ago, Karzai gave a stinging interview to the BBC, in which he charged that the U.S.-led military effort had “caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering” and suggested that NATO combat forces were welcome to leave.

For its part, the Obama administration was signaling that it would be happy to oblige. Earlier this year, it put out word that Mr. Obama may not keep any troops at all in Afghanistan after 2014. And following the BBC interview, the Washington Post reported that:

“the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.”

The frustration in Washington with Karzai’s antics is more than understandable. The Afghan leader habitually uses the foreign governments propping up his regime as scapegoats for his own failings. He is consistently given to playing to his domestic constituencies in ways that strike Western countries that have sacrificed lives and resources for his government’s survival as profoundly impertinent and ungrateful. A less mercurial, erratic and distrustful figure would no doubt make for a steadier ally.