National Security

Hamid Karzai’s Labyrinthine Politics

While all eyes were glued on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's opening speech at the Loya Jirga, the grand assembly of more than 2,500 Afghan elders who were tasked with advising him on signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, nearly two weeks ago, an unprecedented, amusing, and thought-provoking incident occurred. Almost 40 minutes into Karzai's speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of "Death to slaves of Pakistan" and "Death to slaves of Iran" suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

For wary Afghans, the incident demonstrated the overwhelming support that existed in the jirga for signing the security pact. But it was interesting that any opposition to signing the BSA was viewed as a subversive act by Afghanistan's two neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, both of whom disapprove of the agreement.

Additionally, Karzai's cleverly crafted speech reinforced the jirga's preliminary support for signing the BSA. He touched upon Afghanistan's vulnerabilities, stressed the need for ending civilian casualties caused by American forces, and eloquently provided a convincing rationale as to why the deal was important for the future of the country.

After four days of intense deliberations, the assembly not only overwhelmingly endorsed the BSA, but also called on Karzai to sign it before the end of the year. And this support even went beyond endorsement. Some committees also called on the Americans to establish a base in Bamiyan, Afghanistan's central province and home of the ethnic Hazara minority, who are mostly Shiite Muslims, and where Iran is perceived to have influence.

The jirga, which is the ultimate source of national decision-making in Afghanistan, illustrated a distinct paradigm shift as Afghans have never been receptive to the presence of foreign militaries in their country. However, despite this widespread support, Karzai rejected the jirga's recommendations and refused to the sign the BSA unless his newly-raised demands were met, creating an uproar both inside and outside of Afghanistan.

Karzai's new conditions include no U.S. interference in next April's presidential elections, the termination of U.S. military raids on Afghan homes, the release of Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and U.S. help in restarting the stalled peace talks with the Taliban. Coming after the jirga approved the BSA, Karzai's stated demands and delaying tactics have perplexed almost everyone. Some argue he does not want to sign the BSA. Others say he will lose his final leverage if he signs it now. However, many may have missed the nuances behind his bizarre gesture.

Karzai's political posturing is most likely designed for domestic consumption and he actually has no intention of not signing the BSA. After all, if he wasn't planning on signing the document, why was his opening speech to the jirga focused on approving the document? By holding off on signing the agreement, he is generating further domestic support for the pact. In other words, he is effectively building public pressure against himself. Why? Because there is a historical stigma attached to any agreement that includes the establishment of foreign military bases in the country. While Afghans currently support the creation of these bases, with the country's uncertain political future, Karzai is worried about his legacy and he does not want to be seen as the person who facilitated this development if the domestic sentiment changes. By increasing the public pressure, he is creating an environment that would allow him to sign the BSA, while claiming that he had no other choice but to yield to the public demand.

Karzai also intends to send a message to the Taliban and undermine their narrative that he is a puppet of the United States, stripping the group of a propaganda tool it has used to discredit the regime and recruit fighters. In fact, the Taliban sent out a press statement earlier this week that politely praised Karzai for his refusal to sign the agreement.

Despite his statements to the contrary, Karzai knows he cannot hold off the BSA's completion until after the elections because of the extensive and destructive impact that would have on the process. He also understands that postponing the agreement's signing will further uncertainty about the country's future as the BSA is perceived as creating the biggest physical and psychological support for the political and economic stability of Afghanistan. Afghans know that an atmosphere of uncertainty will be detrimental to holding elections that are considered vital to the long-term stability of the country. After all, perception of the election process is as important as the actual practice.

As for the argument that he won't sign the BSA because he will lose his leverage over the Americans, there is no doubt that he will lose his ability to use to the document as a bargaining chip when he signs it. But, as a practiced politician, Karzai will always find other ways and means by which to pressure the United States. Even after signing the agreement, he will remain the most powerful figure in the country until after next April's elections, and will probably remain a dominant political player once he is out of office as well. He has proven to be a shrewd tactician with remarkable courage and a knack for brinksmanship and confusing everyone. But this time, Karzai should understand that he has gone too far, as many Afghans are beginning to question whether he is out for his own interest or the nation's. They have also started to question Karzai's stability in terms of making decisions for the country since they do not understand the underlying objectives behind his bizarre moves.

Yet for all of Karzai's bluster, the United States should know that he will most likely sign the BSA soon, even if his conditions are not met. In the past 12 years, relations between Afghanistan and its Western allies, particularly the United States, have been pushed to the brink of collapse multiple times because of failures to fully understand each other. This lack of understanding has been a primary source of complications and setbacks, so there is dire need for Washington to learn about Kabul's domestic dynamics and Karzai's psyche, and for Kabul to grasp the political realities in Washington. Karzai feels insecure and wary about his own political survival, and the United States expects to be treated as a superpower. Both stances have undermined the countries' pursuit of the main goal, fighting terrorism.

It is important for the United States to realize the significance of Afghan people's support for the BSA. A nation that has long fought against any invading military, regardless of its might, supports, for the first time in its history, the presence of a foreign military on their land. And they proved that they want close ties with the world, without factoring in any ideological or religious ideals.

It should be clear by now that Afghans are the United States' only ally in an unstable region where extremism and anti-U.S. sentiment is consistently promoted by violent extremist groups and, more importantly, governments themselves. Acknowledging that the United States' investment in the country has won over the Afghan people, it is critical that it continues to support Afghanistan's political development and the strengthening of its security forces, who have now taken over the battle against extremism. Sustained engagement with Afghanistan would enable the country to become an anti-terrorism sanctuary in the region.

Najib Sharifi is a member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness, a Kabul-based think tank.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

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