Verbal fireworks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his American benefactors have flared once again, this time over his backtracking on the Bilateral Security Agreement that would govern U.S. activities in Afghanistan after 2014.
This was not the first war of words since President Barack Obama took office, and it won’t be the last. Mr. Karzai’s recent insults and threats far surpass those he routinely accuses Americans of making.
Americans, Afghans and others spend a great deal of time psychoanalyzing Mr. Karzai’s outrageous charges and erratic actions. But they are not unusual for a politician in the Afghan political arena, which often features emotional, aggressive verbal infighting among tribal, ethnic and regional factions.
Mr. Karzai’s principal goal, like all Afghan leaders, is to juggle the many factions, reward loyalists with patronage and pay off rivals. Historically, the fuel for any Afghan leader’s political maneuvering is money (sound familiar?). In pursuit of recurring resources to survive, President Karzai extends his juggling act to foreign governments involved in the Afghan war.
After learning to read the tea leaves, one can discern some methods to Mr. Karzai’s madness that are standard fare in the tribal regions of south and central Asia. I would note four, which often co-mingle:
1) I knew Mr. Karzai when the mujahedeen were fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan over two decades ago. He was in his 20s and in the third tier of mujahedeen leaders — a political activist, not a military commander. He was an Afghan patriot devoted to his country and people. He was proud of his Popalzai tribal line stretching back to the founder of the modern Afghan state in the 18th century.
Mr. Karzai assumed the mantle of Popalzai tribal chief after the Taliban assassinated his father in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1999. Then, as now, he was moderate in his politics and religion, firmly opposed to the Pakistani-supported Afghan religious radicals bent on converting tribal Afghanistan into an extremist Sunni Muslim state.
A decade later in Kandahar, I witnessed Mr. Karzai’s bravery during a failed assassination attempt on his life in 2002. I was riding in the car in front of his. Two of the four occupants in his vehicle were wounded. He was calm and focused throughout the incident.
The Obama administration, early on, was understandably disappointed in President Karzai’s lack of management skills and his government’s widespread corruption. And U.S. officials grew tired of his genuinely felt but futile remonstrations, year after year, to cease nighttime raids and air strikes that caused civilian casualties.
With Americans in charge of the war effort and the Taliban infiltrating civilian communities, simply protecting U.S. forces — let alone winning the war — ruled this out. Afghans nevertheless have quietly concurred with Mr. Karzai’s steady drumbeat on this issue. Afghan tribal codes demand protection of civilians. Killing one, the saying goes, creates 100 enemies.
All three problems — Mr. Karzai’s administrative incompetence, his regime’s massive corruption and nighttime raids — remain unsolved.
U.S. officials humiliated Mr. Karzai when they said publicly that he was “not delivering” on governance and should turn his administrative authority over to a “chief executive.” This brought to mind an Afghan proverb: “Through kindness you can lead an Afghan to hell, but by force you can’t even take him to heaven.”
Today, after 12 years of partnership forced by events, Mr. Karzai sees Americans as attempting to marginalize him, as wanting to continue running the Afghan war, as encouraging his domestic opposition and as colluding with Pakistan as it did in the 1990s to enhance Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.
Mr. Karzai does not trust the United States and vice versa. His actions, like the recent last-minute, unexpected refusal to sign the BSA that he and his council of tribal leaders had approved, are fed by this bitterness — and a proud determination to stay relevant and in command of topsy-turvy Afghan politics.
2) Many Afghans believe that the Americans chose Mr. Karzai to lead Afghanistan after they decided post-9/11 to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban. The 2002 loya jirga at which Mr. Karzai was first installed as president is widely discredited as having been an American production.
Mr. Karzai may have won at that conclave even without the blatant intervention by U.S. diplomats, as he later did in winning the 2004 presidential elections, but the fraud-ridden 2009 presidential elections also tarnished his image.
Now, Mr. Karzai nears the end of presidency, many see his accelerated anti-Americanism as intended to remove the cloud of illegitimacy that lingers over him — thereby enhancing his legacy in Afghan history. He does not want to be seen as comparable to the British, Soviet and Pakistani clients put on the Afghan throne by foreigners.
3) Mr. Karzai, despite American readiness to sign the BSA, is genuinely concerned that U.S. assistance will sharply deteriorate and Washington will abandon the region as it did in the early 1990s. The result then was a bloody civil war, followed by bloody Taliban rule. The United States has been known to wash its hands of other allies in the Third World as well.
President Obama has said the Afghan war is over for Americans. Mr. Karzai knows that Congress, the American public and U.S. allies have soured on the war, and he also knows that American deference to Pakistan could sacrifice Afghan interests, with Pakistan seeking to re-Talibanize Afghanistan.
In this context, Mr. Karzai’s recent bouts of America bashing can be partially interpreted as a way to leverage more help from powerful U.S. competitors — China, Russia and Iran — to compensate for reduced American aid. Mr. Karzai’s visit this month to New Delhi, for instance, revolved around his “wish list” for a substantial increase in Indian assistance.
4) Mr. Karzai’s political opposition watches closely for signs that he will either cancel the April 2014 presidential elections to remain in office or fix them so he can rule through a tame successor. This motivation also would help explain Mr. Karzai’s recent outbursts of anti-Americanism. The United States and its European allies would be his harshest critics should he cancel or sabotage the elections.
What to do?
The United States must be patient, confident and not overly reactive. Should the elections be reasonably free and fair, there will be a new leader in Kabul by the summer of 2014 as the transition to full Afghan control of Afghanistan’s destiny moves into its final phase.
Although Afghan politics are always unpredictable, the march to the 2014 elections will steadily weaken Mr. Karzai’s influence. For the foreseeable future, it will not be possible for him to locate a foreign substitute for the U.S.-led coalition’s funding and training of Afghan national security forces. Chinese and Russian leaders have joined the 95 percent of Mr. Karzai’s loya jirga participants who urged him to sign the U.S.-Afghanistan BSA. China, Russia and India can supplement but not replace the American, NATO and BSA blueprint to sustain and improve Afghan security forces.
Moreover, there is a geo-strategic consensus among the United States, NATO, the United Nations, China, Russia and India to prevent Pakistan’s re-Talibanization of Afghanistan and reversion to a springboard for terrorism.
Mr. Karzai’s two terms should be seen in this light. His tribal roots and traditional outlook reflect the moderate-nationalistic foundation of modern Afghanistan, as opposed to the al-Qaida-linked extremism of Pakistan-sponsored radical Afghan proxies.
If held, the Afghan elections will almost certainly select one of the leading moderate-nationalist candidates competing to replace Mr. Karzai. That outcome would meet the interests of America, its friends and allies, as well as India, Russia and China.
For the United States, the stakes in Afghanistan remain high as Washington withdraws its combat forces and shifts to a diplomacy-centric role — one that it effectively practiced in backing the mujahedeen defeat of the Soviet army in the 1980s. Bugging out again should not be an option — that would reinforce a dangerous stereotype among both allies and adversaries that the United States lacks staying power.
The United States, though, must use its leverage to persuade Pakistan to dismantle the terrorist sanctuaries within its borders; to block the return of international terrorist groups to Afghanistan; to preserve the gains Afghanistan has made with foreign assistance in education, democratic reform, human rights, gender rights, health care and economic infrastructure.
We must ensure that the sacrifices of American and allied soldiers who were wounded or perished in Afghanistan were not in vain.
And we must keep in mind that a moderate-nationalist outcome in Afghanistan would have a positive effect on the long struggle in the Muslim world between moderates and extremists.
Peter Tomsen, author of the newly published “The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts and the Failures of Great Powers,” was U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992 and a 1964 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.