Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s expanding list of demands before he’ll sign an agreement for U.S. forces to stay in his country is testing the Obama administration’s patience and risking blunders by each side.
Unless Karzai backs off soon on his shifting demands and his refusal to sign the accord until after Afghanistan’s presidential elections in April, the U.S. may decide to remove all remaining forces -- just as it did in 2011 when Iraq didn’t agree to American terms for them to stay, Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to France, said in a phone interview.
Karzai, 55, is “overplaying his hand and he is now on the threshold of crossing a red line not only with the U.S. but also Afghan people in general,” said Samad, who now heads Silk Road Consulting, a Washington-based geopolitical advisory firm. “Karzai runs the risk of pushing Washington toward a zero option and also reducing international assistance for a country that can’t pay its own salaries.”
Karzai’s latest ultimatum was for the release of Afghan prisoners being held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He delivered it two days ago to Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, who visited the presidential palace in Kabul to tell the Afghan leader to stop dickering and sign the accord providing for some personnel to stay behind after U.S. combat troops leave by the end of next year.
Karzai today again appeared to shift course, telling local Radio Azadi that he could sign the deal before the year ends if the U.S. agrees to a “complete cessation” of Afghan home raids and the start of a “practical peace process.”
“They can decide either to stay here or they can decide to leave here,” Karzai said in the interview distributed by his press office.
The U.S. has provided about $93 billion in military and economic aid to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban after the U.S. invasion in 2001, according to a report last month by the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. has lost 2,287 lives in the country, according to Defense Department data compiled by Bloomberg.
The U.S. and other international donors have pledged about $6 billion a year in economic assistance for Afghanistan through 2017. In addition, the U.S. has said it’ll pay about $4 billion annually toward the Afghan National Security Forces.
Some Afghan political leaders are criticizing Karzai for risking that assistance as he completes his second and final term as president.
By refusing to sign the agreement, Karzai is “betraying his own people,” Afghan Senator Hedayatullah Rehayee said.
A loya jirga, a meeting of 2,500 tribal elders that gathered last week in Kabul at Karzai’s invitation, approved a draft security pact that allows U.S. troops immunity from Afghan prosecution and grants them access to nine bases in the country. In exchange, the U.S. promised that counterterrorism raids on homes in search of al-Qaeda suspects would be rare and led by Afghan forces.
Over the years, Karzai has frequently resorted to criticizing the U.S., seeking to play off sentiment among some Afghans resentful of foreign armies from the Soviet Union to the Americans.
In an Oct. 7 interview with the BBC, Karzai said the U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have caused “a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure.” He said a return of the Taliban to a role in the government wouldn’t “undermine progress.”
Karzai is convinced that the U.S. has no intention of leaving, according to Martine van Bijlert, co-director of Afghan Analysts Network, a nonprofit policy group based in Kabul.
The Afghan leader believes negotiations over the security agreement provide “the one leverage he has to influence U.S. behavior in Afghanistan and he intends to use it as much as he can,” Van Bijlert said in an e-mail.
“Because of the lack of trust, the more pressure is put on him, the more he will probably believe that he is indeed standing in the way of some specific U.S. agenda,” she said.
The two sides are still underestimating each other’s position, Van Bijlert said. “On one hand, the U.S. is obviously more keen to leave than Karzai thinks,” she said. “But it is, on the other hand, probably less likely to fully pull out than most Americans believe.”
The Obama administration also shares blame for not understanding how Karzai negotiates, David Sedney, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, said in a phone interview. He left the position in May.
For Karzai, “going back five years, back to the 2009 elections, bargaining and re-bargaining with us has got him better deals over and over again,” said Sedney, who also served as a deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
As the two countries negotiated the Strategic Partnership Agreement last year, the U.S. consented to Karzai’s demands that the Pentagon hand over control of a prison it ran next to the Bagram air base, Sedney said.
The Obama administration also ignored its history with Karzai by sending Rice to meet with him instead of a more frequent visitor such as Secretary of State John Kerry, Sedney said.
“Every time a new military commander, ambassador or secretary goes to meet him, Karzai always tests and pushes them,” Sedney said. “There’s no history of people dropping in on Karzai and getting good results.”
A White House statement summarizing Rice’s meeting said Karzai “outlined new conditions for signing the agreement” and indicated “he is not prepared” to do so promptly. Rice “stressed that we have concluded negotiations and deferring the signature of the agreement until after next year’s elections is not viable” because of the need “to plan for a potential post-2014 military presence.”
Karzai probably believes that he can survive this crisis as he has many in the past “because the West has given him the benefit of doubt for too long,” said Samad, the former Afghan ambassador.