Hamid Karzai: No strings attached

Karzai’s new anti-U.S. stance is driven by a desire to leave office as a peacemaker, not a puppet

On a mild winter day 11 years ago, George W. Bush stood beside Hamid Karzai, then the Afghan interim leader, in the White House Rose Garden and declared America’s “enduring commitment to Afghanistan’s future.” He called Karzai a determined leader and said his government reflected the “hopes of all Afghans for a new and better future.”

Karzai, wearing a peaked cap and loose-fitting green tunic, was equally effusive. Afghanistan, he said, was a good partner and would stay a good partner. “I’m sure that the future of the two countries will be good, and a wonderful relationship should be expected to come in the future.”

It is almost jarring to watch video footage of that news conference today. Weak sunlight on the green White House lawn adds to the sense of optimism and goodwill between Afghanistan and the United States that was present then but has unravelled since. Relations reached their lowest point this month, when Karzai suggested the United States and the Taliban were colluding to destabilize the country to prolong America’s presence there.

“Those bombs that went off in Kabul and Khost yesterday were not a show of force to America . . . It was in the service of foreigners not withdrawing from Afghanistan,” Karzai said in a televised speech, referring to two Taliban suicide bombings that killed at least 18 people. He also claimed the United States wants to stay in Afghanistan past 2014—when most foreign troops are scheduled to depart—because it covets the country’s natural resources.

Karzai’s comments followed the Afghan president’s demand that U.S. special forces leave strategically important Wardak province near Kabul, and his anger over a delayed handover of America’s main prison at Bagram Air Field to Afghan authorities.

Karzai has backtracked slightly since. The United States and Afghanistan have announced a compromise regarding the withdrawal of American commandos from Wardak province. And this week, during a visit to Afghanistan by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States finally transferred control of the prison at Bagram Air Field to Afghanistan. But Karzai’s words still irritate many Americans. The United States has spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan. More than 2,000 U.S. troops have died there. Much of Afghanistan’s government, security forces, and infrastructure run on American dollars.

Karzai knows all this. Yet his words can only undermine already declining support for continued engagement in Afghanistan among American politicians and the general public. So why did he make them?

AMONG THE Afghans accompanying Karzai to the Rose Garden in 2002 was Omar Samad, a spokesman in the new government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who would later represent Afghanistan as its ambassador in Canada and France.

Samad, now a consultant and political analyst in Washington, says Karzai’s comments are driven by fears about his legacy and a desire to shape Afghanistan’s future in the little time he has left as president before elections are held to replace him next year.

“He wants to be known not as a U.S. puppet anymore, but as the person who paved the way for the United States and Western forces to leave Afghanistan, and who restored Afghan sovereignty as a nationalist,” says Samad. “He wants to leave office as the peacemaker, and the person who paved the way for all Afghans, meaning dissatisfied Taliban, to rejoin the rest of the country.”

So far the Taliban—at least officially—are not receptive. Last week they issued a statement that said nationalism would not save Karzai. The Afghan nation “knows its puppets and its heroes,” the statement said. It warned that Karzai’s path would lead him to Ariana Square—where the Taliban publicly hanged Karzai’s predecessor, Mohammad Najibullah, in 1996.

More seriously for Karzai, his anti-American rhetoric has backfired among broader swaths of the Afghan public. “He has not gauged public opinion for what it is,” says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written widely about Afghanistan and the Taliban. “Public opinion is very much in favour of the Western presence. Karzai’s playing up this act of being an ultra-nationalist, and I think he’s gone overboard.”

Abbas Daiyar, an Afghan journalist in Kabul, says Karzai’s belligerence has left him weakened politically. But he is still president. And he will be for at least another year, a time in which the United States is hoping to draw down its forces, and oversee preparations for a credible and peaceful presidential election. These are not easy tasks, even without a strained relationship with the Afghan president.

“I think he feels that the West has no other option but to continue to help Afghanistan, and as a result he can gamble big,” says Samad, speaking of Karzai. “This is where he may be mistaken. I don’t know if Karzai and his team, his inner circle, fully understand what the feelings are in Western capitals. He doesn’t fully understand the erosion that has taken place in terms of support and goodwill toward Afghanistan over the last four or five years.”

The United States and the broader West still have interests in Afghanistan. But exactly what the interests are and what sort of investment is needed to secure them is a subject of debate inside the Obama White House.

Most arguments in favour of prolonged engagement involve Western security. The United States originally went to war in Afghanistan because the Taliban had sheltered various terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, which attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda, though weakened, is still operational, largely in Pakistan.

“Now there’s fuel to catch fire on the other side of the border,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. Afghanistan provides a convenient base from which to hit those cross-border targets.

Some analysts argue that a resurgent Taliban would again give sanctuary to international jihadists. The Afghan insurgency is fragmented. While factions within it have only local ambitions, other elements, notably the Haqqani network active in eastern Afghanistan, have partnerships with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.

The United States may have larger geo-strategic reasons for staying in Afghanistan, says Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College. He points to regional power struggles in the country involving Iran, India and Pakistan, and argues the United States has invested too much already to simply abandon the country to others.

Hamid Karzai is surely aware of all these arguments. But he may be overestimating America’s desire to stay. A similar case was made about American interests in Iraq, but the United States pulled all its troops out in 2011, after it was unable to reach an agreement with Iraq on a deal that would have extended the U.S. presence. “Afghans do not want to be another Iraq,” says Samad.

President Obama’s commitment to Afghanistan is limited. He began his first term calling the war there necessary and surging many more troops into the country. But he quickly scaled back U.S. ambitions and began pulling those troops out. In his 2013 inauguration address, Obama declared, “a decade of war is ending.” This was a patent falsehood, but it revealed something about Obama’s desire to shrink America’s presence in Afghanistan. Karzai’s hostility makes such an American disengagement more likely.

This concerns Abbas Daiyar, the Afghan journalist. He describes relations with the United States as “a matter of life” for Afghanistan and says an international exodus would send his country into deep crisis and possibly civil war. “It’s very critical that President Karzai does not risk the future of the country for his own political interest.”