Why Hamid Karzai can’t be beaten

The staying power of Afghanistan’s unlikely leader

by Adnan R. Khan

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It was a surreal moment in Kabul on Nov. 24. The streets in this teeming city of 3.5 million were unusually quiet. For days, government offices and businesses had been shut down while Afghanistan’s tribal elders, politicians, religious leaders and activists gathered in a traditional Loya Jirga to debate the future of American troops in their country. At the centre of the discussions was the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), a 20-page document outlining the responsibilities of U.S. soldiers and civilian personnel remaining in Afghanistan after the scheduled 2014 NATO-led troop withdrawal.

On that afternoon, the last day of the Jirga, all of the 50 committees that had been formed to pore over the minutiae of the deal unanimously agreed to sign it. The decision was not easy, according to those who were there. Religious leaders and members of the political left took issue with Article 13, guaranteeing U.S. personnel who had committed crimes against Afghans immunity from prosecution by Afghan authorities.

But the BSA was approved with some minor changes and the attendees assembled for a closing speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. What they were expecting was something anodyne, a protocol performance from a president who had demanded the Jirga himself so that representatives of the Afghan people could decide whether or not the agreement was in the interests of Afghanistan.

What they got was something else entirely.

“Karzai was obviously very angry,” says Timor Sharan, 30, a historian and representative of Afghanistan’s emerging intellectual class, who was present at the gathering. “He was erratic. He was improvising. What I kept thinking was that something must have happened behind the scenes to prompt this kind of outburst.”

In what some Afghan experts have characterized as an act either of madness or supreme egotism, Karzai rejected the decision of the Jirga. He would not sign the BSA in its current form, he said. Details still needed to be worked out, including new demands such as a total ban on U.S. soldiers entering Afghan homes. Failing that, the signing would have to wait until a new president is elected in April 2014. “The delegates at the Jirga were stunned,” Sharan says. “Everyone was expecting Karzai to rubber-stamp the deal.”

But if there’s one thing Karzai is not, it is predictable. Over the course of more than a decade of leading one of the world’s most ungovernable countries, he has proven himself not only resilient but also slippery and chameleonic. Against all expectations, he has challenged (and now seems to be out-manoeuvring) the U.S. and has kept Pakistan—Afghanistan’s nemesis—close enough to maintain a direct line with its prime minister without losing his ability to criticize the military’s meddling in Afghan affairs. His domestic politics have proven, if not brilliant, then sufficiently dexterous to keep a landscape riddled with tribal hatreds from tearing itself apart. And most importantly, he has proven himself an adept strategist in his quest to remain relevant after he leaves office this year, ineligible to run for a third term as president.

That Karzai has survived this long is remarkable considering the Herculean task he was handed in December 2001. Back then, he was an unexpected choice to head up the newly installed interim government. Most observers concluded that his appointment was the safe bet. Here was a face familiar in most Western capitals: Karzai had spent much of the late 1990s lobbying world leaders for support in the fight against the Taliban. He was a multilingual, intelligent man who everyone liked but no one took very seriously. And he was a Pashtun, the same ethnic group that makes up nearly 50 per cent of the Afghan population and the vast majority of the Taliban.

As the thinking went at the time, Karzai would be an inoffensive leader who could be managed. “This was the first mistake the Americans made,” one close confidant of Karzai tells Maclean’s, requesting anonymity. “Hamid may seem like a pliable man on the surface but he is complex in his thinking. He is a born strategist.”

So what is his strategy now? That question hangs heavily over the Afghan capital. Speculations abound, ranging from the patently absurd (insanity) to accusations of perfidy. Critics warn that Karzai’s belligerence will lead to the dreaded “zero option,” shorthand for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops and eventually other NATO allies, leaving the country’s fledgling security forces at the mercy of a reinvigorated Taliban.

Karzai’s spokesperson, Aimal Faizi, has brushed aside such apocalyptic predictions. “According to our calculation, there will be no zero option,” he told Reuters last week. “The U.S. is not here to leave the country and withdraw all the troops.”

Indeed, even a cursory look at the hundreds of millions of dollars spent over the past four years on military base upgrades indicates the U.S. is planning to stick around. Add to that Iraq’s descent into chaos a mere two years after the U.S. pulled its troops out and the costs of abandonment in Afghanistan (including the blow to U.S. prestige) become unacceptable.

It would seem then that Karzai is playing all the right cards, albeit in an extremely high-stakes game. Standing up to the world’s superpower takes considerable moxie. “But it’s the Americans themselves who created the monster,” says another of Karzai’s confidants. “I’m not saying Hamid is acting monstrously, but after more than a decade of being treated like a pushover, the Americans have finally brought out the Pashtun in him.”

And that means trouble. The daring of Pashtuns is legendary. Looking back into their history yields a wealth of fantastic tales chronicling the exploits of kings who would be heroes and—more often—heroes who would be kings. A leader without a few acts of derring-do under his sash rarely survives the bravado of rival claimants, or, if he manages to survive, will nevertheless fade away from the collective Afghan memory. Karzai, sources close to him say, fears this.

“This is a keen observer of Afghan history,” says Sharan. “He knows that leaders are quickly forgotten in this country, whether they are killed or simply die off. Not many men manage to remain relevant in Afghanistan after their time in power is up.” It takes a legend to survive Afghanistan’s capricious history.

The past three decades have been a particularly fertile era for Afghan myth-making, with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir and leader of the Northern Alliance, who was killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and the tenebrous Mullah Omar, the one-eyed preacher who would become the leader of a ragtag group of seminary students (the Taliban) and rise to rule much of Afghanistan.

Karzai’s place in that tumultuous history remains minor at best. Intelligence officials in Washington viewed Karzai as a small player, meeting with him out of courtesy but offering little more than moral support for his cause. His plan to raise an anti-Taliban revolt among the Pashtuns in Kandahar, their traditional heartland, was regarded as quixotic at best, even by Massoud.

But the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001 gave a restless Karzai the opportunity he needed. That story is the one legendary exploit he can lay claim to: A day after the bombing campaign—dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom—began, Karzai decided to make his move. He was living in exile in Quetta, Pakistan, at the time. His Popalzai tribe occupied huge tracts of land across the border in Kandahar. Karzai’s plan was to make a grand entrance on his home turf and foment a rebellion, right inside the hornets’ nest, in the Taliban heartland.

“We might be captured the moment we enter Afghanistan and be killed,” Karzai recalls telling his companions. “We have a 60 per cent chance of death and 40 per cent chance to live and survive. Winning was no consideration. We could not even think of that. We got on two motorbikes. We drove into Afghanistan.”

As daring as it might sound, the act in itself was nothing heroic. Mullah Omar himself slipped out of a besieged Kandahar in December 2001 in a convoy of motorcycles, escaping to Pakistan. Karzai came the other way, leading a pack of poorly equipped fighters and looking for the fight he’d been craving for years. But in Karzai’s case, the symbolism of the act far outweighed the reality.

How that motorcycle ride really played out is irrelevant now. When Afghan delegates at the Bonn Conference chose Karzai to head the Afghan Interim Authority in 2001, his legend was in its infancy. Over the years, it has fluctuated between Western puppet and staunch Afghan nationalist, at times coloured by accusations of self-interest, at others of plain buffoonery.

The debate over “who is Hamid Karzai?” now sits at the centre of Afghanistan’s political discourse. And his balancing act between West-friendly leader and Taliban apologist has been the trademark of his presidency: managing to maintain a precarious equilibrium in a country seething with rivalries while positioning himself as the keystone. “It’s a brilliant strategy,” says Sharan. “Karzai is holding the presidential candidates hostage; he’s holding the Americans hostage. He’s ensuring his own political relevancy.”

No doubt Karzai realizes that once the Bilateral Security Agreement is signed, he will quickly become a footnote in Afghanistan, limping to the end of his presidency in April, unless he can raise his status. Challenging the U.S. plays well on that front, particularly with Pashtuns who have suffered the most over the past three decades of conflict. The Pashtun-language Afghan press is filled with accolades for Karzai. He has been lauded for standing up to America. Even the Taliban have supported his stance on the security agreement.

His detractors, on the other hand, come largely from the political class and the Persian-speaking population who have a strong interest in an ongoing U.S. presence.

There is a potentially fatal flaw in Karzai’s thinking: the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan remains a divisive issue. The ethnic component of the divide is no coincidence and his position on the BSA has blown the dust off the ethnic fault lines that plague his nation. His aloofness has also proven detrimental. As it stands today, Karzai has very few solid allies among the powerful warlords. The game he is playing now, while adroit in terms of his personal ambitions, could lead to isolation and a host of enemies. It’s not hard to see a future in which Karzai is not only the target of the Taliban but of any number of political rivals.

And yet, the overarching theme that emerges from conversations with the people who know him looks suspiciously like a hero complex. Hamid Karzai is bracing for the grand battle he’d hoped to be a part of for the past two decades. Winning, as on that fateful day in Quetta in 2001, may not be a consideration. Karzai wants to be remembered, not as the U.S. lackey people have accused him of being, but as an Afghan leader worthy of myths and legends.




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Why Hamid Karzai can’t be beaten

  1. We sell arms to developing countries, we invade developing countries, and we are always astonished at how things turn out in developing countries.

    • a nation is never built over night. canada was once a developing nation, you could argue it took us 200 years to get it right

      • Afghanistan has been around for thousands of years….if the west would stop interfering they’d be fine.

        Canada hasn’t got it right, so we shouldn’t be trying to tell others what to do.

        • That’s right….and if not for Western knowledge , they would still have Thousand year old technology.
          That being said, I actually agree that the West should leave these third world shit-holes to sort themselves out…unless they become a threat.
          If that happens…..return them to the stone age.

          • As a Pashtun I am thankful to Canada (now my first home) and the West, which has liberated us from the backward and barbaric ways of the Taliban, and their supporters, sitting in neighbouring countries in the Arabian peninsula.

            It is the drones of America that protect the Pashtuns of the tribal region within Pakistan, instead of Pakistan’s army, which abets and supports the West by the day and the Taliban by night!

            Yes, Afghanistan has been around for ages, yet it is still behind in every single way.

            I hope Mr. Ashraf Ghani will win the upcoming elections and continue to lead Afghans on the path of progression in a country, where the clergy and its stone age beliefs still has the society by its neck. I hope in the near future, Afghan women will be equal to men in every single way, and Afghanistan will be a great democratic country in a region where clergy, military and tyranny dictates our day-to-day lives.

  2. Taliban prisoners should always have been kept in NATO-ISAF jails, accountable to us, NOT and NEVER AGAIN in Afghan state hands.

    The fact of the Taliban prisoners that Karzai has already released, never mind the rest, the fact that Taliban fighters have been seen patrolling with the Afghan National Army and the fact of the green on blue or insider attacks on our soldiers from that Afghan army are further proof, if any were needed, of the utter folly of funding an Afghan state which we can have no political control over.

    We should only ever fund our own military, police, prisons, economic development and humanitarian aid so that we know the money is being spent appropriately in accordance with the wishes of our taxpayers not the wishes of some foreign corrupt politicians.

    We should fund our own guys and simply hire any additional Afghans we need to work for us for our money, sure, but always in future following our orders!

    Don’t pay Karzai or whoever is the next Afghan President anything, never mind billions of dollars in military aid, for his (or her if the next Afghan president is a woman) agreement on security.

    Don’t sign anything which commits us to any peace talks with the Taliban.

    If we need an Afghan force to secure our supply lines as we drawdown then re-organise the Afghan forces into 2 parts.

    1) An Afghan national army commanded by the Afghan president which Afghans pay for out of their taxes. We pay nothing for this.

    2) An auxiliary Afghan force run as part of NATO-ISAF, commanded by our generals, which gets our billions of dollars in military aid spent on it.

    Quit trying to buy Afghan politicians’ friendship with money. It’s corrupting.

    If that means that no agreement with any Afghan president can be reached, so be it. We revert to being an army of occupation with the authority of NATO.

  3. We need a new strategy which defeats the Taliban (and Al Qaeda) by applying the Bush Doctrine versus those states which sponsor those terrorists – Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

    Applying the Bush Doctrine versus Afghanistan alone makes as little strategic sense as it would have if we’d applied Cold War doctrine to say Cuba alone but not against the Soviet Union and its Eastern European client communists states!

    It is a military fundamental that you don’t win a war by funding your enemy but rather you win a war by bankrupting your enemy, cutting off the resources the enemy needs to sustain its army.

    We should apply massive pressure to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, up to and including war if necessary. Something fairly dramatic is needed to show the state sponsors of terrorism that their plan for a secret war against us with no chance of any blowback has utterly failed and they are looking down the barrel of a real war with us.

    No aid whatsoever should go through Afghan government coffers. This should apply to economic, humanitarian and military aid.

    By funding Karzai and the warlords, NATO and the US have made it very difficult for the honest politicians of Afghanistan who answer to the Afghan people, not to the warlords, to replace Karzai and the warlords as the established Afghan state, to give NATO and the US a well-run Afghan state partner with which we can work to rid Afghanistan of the warlords.

    If that means that no agreement with any Afghan president can be reached, so be it. We revert to being an army of occupation with the authority of NATO.

  4. The AfPak Mission helps implementation of the Bush Doctrine versus state sponsors of terror and is inspired by the leadership of Condoleezza Rice.

    The AfPak Mission approach to the Taliban is uncompromising.

    There should be no peace with the Taliban.
    The only “good” Taliban is a dead Taliban.
    Arrest all Taliban political leaders and media spokesmen.
    Capture or kill all Taliban fighters.

    The AfPak Mission identifies useful content across multiple websites.

    On YouTube, the AfPak Mission channel presents playlists of useful videos.

    The AfPak Mission forum offers structured on-line written discussion facilities and the forum is the rallying and reference centre of the AfPak Mission, linking to all other AfPak Mission content on the internet.

    The AfPak Mission has a Twitter, a Flickr and a wordpress Blog too.

    You are invited to subscribe to the channel, register with the forum and follow on twitter, flickr and the blog.

    AfPak Mission Channel http://www.youtube.com/user/AfpakMission
    Forum http://scot.tk/forum/viewforum.php?f=26
    Twitter http://twitter.com/AfPakMission
    Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/afpakmission/
    Blog http://afpakmission.wordpress.com/

  5. BEWARE-SELF-HARM – John Kerry – “America’s commitment to the independent sovereignty of Afghanistan”

    BEWARE-SELF-HARM – “Karzia is still refusing to sign an agreement which would allow US and NATO forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2014. White House press secretary Jay Carney says without that agreement, the US will have no choice but to pull out all its troops” – US TV News

    No, actually, we would NOT have to withdraw from Afghanistan. We could resume OCCUPATION without any deal whatsoever!

    It is all too commonly misunderstood that in the absence of a signed deal that might be taken to imply that this would allow somehow the officers of the Afghan state to arrest our forces and subject them to Afghan national justice.

    No, that’s a misunderstanding which shows only how subservient the international political class has become to Karzai and to the Afghan state.

    If the Afghan national forces come to arrest our troops, we don’t submit. We arrest them; if needs be we point our guns at them; if needs be we shoot them; if needs be we declare war on the Afghan state. It’s an occupation so we don’t need a signed deal! Understand yet?

    Well even if you understand you can be sure that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have simply no comprehension of what it means not to have their BSA signed. They are out of their depth and should be replaced by the president.

  6. I think the Karzais played all sides to stay in power. When he was backed by the west and supported by troops he was the wests friend. Now with the pull out of western troops he is pending a retirement out of politics, for he cannot survive with the Taliban as part of the government. They will come back into government in some posts. Then there is the issue of $900 million that disappeared from a bank run by his half brother. Methinks he will survive and disappear with his family into a luxurious retirement, probably in the USA.

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