Efforts by the Obama administration to sign a new bilateral security agreement or a BSA with Afghan President Hamid Karzai have hit a wall. The White House insists that for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014 the agreement must be signed by Karzai within the next few months. Karzai has insisted that he will sign the agreement but only after the next Afghan presidential election, running counter to the recent Loya Jirga that met in Kabul and endorsed the agreement. Afghanistan’s geographic location is vital to America’s long-term strategy to combat terrorism in the region explained former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley via email.
“From the U.S. point of view, the BSA is a necessary element of the long-term strategy to combat terrorism,” Crowley explained. “The logic is avoiding safe havens that give extremists room to maneuver. Afghanistan is taking responsibility for its own security but will need considerable outside help for an indefinite period. The BSA is the mechanism to protect the gains made of the last decade.”
Among Karzai’s demands is a pledge that the U.S. military stop night raids and searches of Afghan homes and that any remaining Afghans held at Guantánamo Bay be repatriated back to Afghanistan. Initially there were reports that any agreement hinged on a demand from Karzai that President Obama pen an open letter acknowledging any mistakes made by the U.S. military in the over decade long war.
In an interview with CNN, Susan Rice, the national security advisor rebuffed the idea that a letter from Obama was in the offering. “No such letter has been drafted or delivered,” Rice insisted. “There is not a need for the United States to apologize to Afghanistan. Quite the contrary. We have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgency and al-Qaida.”
Karzai has increasingly asserted with what some consider an overestimated sense of worth to the Obama administration by not realizing that the United States will walk away unless the agreement is signed. The United States walked away from Iraq and U.S. officials have suggested the same will happen in Afghanistan unless Karzai relents and promptly signs the agreement. But for the agreement to happen, Karzai’s demands have increasingly escalated. Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman laid out the conditions for any agreement, including an end to U.S. raids but will allow for some raids if the life of a U.S. soldier is at risk. “It is vitally important that there is no more killing of Afghan civilians by U.S. forces and Afghans want to see this practically,” said Faizi, according to Reuters.
Karzai’s decision to ignore the tacit endorsement of the agreement by the Loya Jirga even stunned members of his own government. “Unfortunately President Karzai did not see the interests of his country, and he’s trying to enforce his personal opinions and wrongheaded ideas on us,” said Sibghatullah Mujadidi, the chairman of the Loya Jirga. “Becoming president made him prideful.”
However, if the security agreement is signed, remaining American forces will be reduced to several thousand to facilitate the training of Afghan troops and run counter-insurgency operations. If Karzai holds fast to his demands then like in Iraq when a SOFA agreement wasn’t reached, all U.S. forces will be pulled out. Considering the fact that over 2,000 Americans have died in a conflict of which few Americans approve, this might help Obama politically. “Ambassador Rice reiterated that, without a prompt signature, the U.S. would have no choice but to initiate planning for a post-2014 future in which there would be no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan,” the White House said in a press release following Rice’s meeting with Karzai in Kabul.
President Karzai has cut an interesting cloth over the years. From winning what many consider a rigged election in 2009 to his connection with deep embedded corruption, Karzai has been a difficult negotiating partner. But his motives aren’t exactly clear at balking at any agreement that benefits Afghans more than the United States and the unfortunate U.S. soldiers who would be stationed in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
While Karzai ultimately claims that delaying the agreement would be best until after the presidential elections his brinkmanship is also driven by a desire to establish a legacy. “Karzai has a PhD in Posturing. What he is doing is positioning himself for more concessions from the U.S. and NATO - although the agreement that was reached was full of concessions from both sides. Part of this is also legacy-driven. He wants to be remembered as the Afghan leader who stood up to the hand that feed him and the country,” said Daniel Wagner of Country Risk Solutions via email.
What best illustrates Karzai’s chameleon approach is his suggestion in an interview with NBC News that any instability in his country rests with NATO. At the same time that Karzai was threatening to end negotiations on the bilateral security agreement he argued that Western militaries have undermined Afghan security. “Part of the insecurity is coming to us from the structures that NATO and America created in Afghanistan,” Karzai said.
And regarding the allegations that corruption permeates at all levels in his government; he suggested that the allegations are untrue. “I’ve come to believe (that)…corruption comes from the United States through contracts and through the corruption in both systems.” The “perception of corruption is deliberate to render the Afghan government exploitable, to weaken it,” he added. His younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai has been linked to Afghanistan’s lucrative narcotics trade.
Karzai’s deliberate attempts to play both sides out of a sense of self-preservation aren’t lost on U.S. officials. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta went so far as to suggest last year, that Karzai would be better off if “every once in a while, expressed his thanks for the sacrifices that have been made by those who have fought and died for Afghanistan rather than criticize.”
While some U.S. officials have grown accustomed to Karzai’s brinkmanship, his increasingly growing list of demands to be met before signing any agreement has some Afghan officials concerned. In an interview with the New York Times, Sayed Ishaq Gailani, an Afghan parliamentarian from Paktika province suggested, “Mark my words, if we do not sign this security agreement with the Americans, things will get worse than Iraq and the 1990s Afghan civil war.” Sayad placed special emphasis on the fact that Karzai represents his own interests and not Afghans as a whole. “Karzai is not Afghanistan, he is just another individual, with illogical and illegal demands that are against all diplomatic norms.”
P.J. Crowley explained that Karzai’s approach is driven by leverage and what he can extract from Washington. “From the Afghan point of view, Karzai’s political brinksmanship is about leverage. He needs the U.S. military to take more seriously his ongoing concern about the impact of U.S. counterterrorism operations on the Afghan population. He also needs Washington to do more to establish momentum in the peace process with the Taliban. The release of some Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo is a Taliban demand that the United States has previously resisted. Karzai also needs the United States to lean harder on Pakistan to be a constructive player.”
Afghans have more to lose than the Americans if Karzai continues his obstinence. Karzai’s brinkmanship puts any Afghan security gains at serious peril. But with the Taliban driving the proverbial bus it’s likely that Karzai will seek a way to remain involved in Afghan politics for the foreseeable future. Reuters reports that even though Hamid is barred from a third term, his brother, Qayum, is planning to run for president and will likely offer Hamid a seat at the table. “I think he deserves a role,” Qayum told Reuters. “Afghanistan is particularly in need of senior people like the president, who have worked for 13 years to keep the country together.”
So while the United States might have grown tired of Hamid’s antics it would seem that the Karzai family will continue to frustrate the Obama administration for years to come.