The South Asia Channel

What Is Driving Hamid Karzai?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is often characterized as unpredictable and erratic, most recently in his handling of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. But are such accusations justified or do they also reflect a failure to understand his thinking? Today, the debate has become too U.S.-centric and undermines the ability to understand Afghans and get international perspectives right. For Karzai, the BSA is just one part of a wider context, where the upcoming elections and efforts to engage the Taliban are other essential components.

The presidential elections in April are the most critical element to creating a stable Afghanistan. The legitimacy of the new president depends on a better turnout than in the 2009 elections, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, where a higher turnout would require arrangements with the Taliban. Unfortunately, Afghan discussions with the Taliban have been hampered by disagreements within the Taliban itself, the lack of Pakistani engagement, and half-heartedness from the United States and other international facilitators. But there are still contacts between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Although the chances of positive results have been regarded for some time as slim, it would have been irresponsible to dismiss these efforts as impossible and abstain from pursuing them.

A premature signing of the BSA could have reinforced Taliban opposition to the elections, thereby undermining support for a new government, enhancing instability, and serving to prolong the war. The Obama administration should long ago have had this context in mind, engaged more decisively with the Taliban, and abstained from unnecessary pressure on Karzai for an early signing of the security pact. Afghans -- including the presidential candidates -- are supportive of the BSA and want a friendship with the United States. But Afghans also want a process towards peace. Vigorous and persistent efforts to launch the peace process -- with a strong U.S. engagement, including bringing Pakistan on board -- would have made the signing of the BSA easier. If the last efforts before the elections fail, then at least  Karzai will be able to go to Afghans and say that he and the United States did whatever was possible.

Yet the BSA is in the interests of Afghanistan and of the United States. For Afghanistan, the improved Afghan security forces are still not able to operate without a level of international support. For the United States, an increasingly unstable Afghanistan would negatively affect the region and Pakistan, which already suffers from a serious level of violence and has a significant nuclear arsenal. To believe that a military presence outside Afghanistan could substitute for a continued presence inside the country is an illusion.

Though the debate has been frustrating for all sides, there are important lessons to be learned. First, the United States should abstain from artificial deadlines. The Afghans know -- just as the rest of us with some experience do -- that they are artificial and they contribute to even greater distrust. Second, the United States should abstain applying from constant pressure to Karzai; it does not work. The Afghan president has seen hundreds of politicians and even more ambassadors and commanders come with their "messages," while few have had the wisdom to ask him what would be helpful in his political landscape. Third, the United States should abstain from debating complex issues via the media. These public debates create more suspicion and undermine the atmosphere needed for an agreement to be reached.

Unfortunately, the distrust between Washington and Kabul has increased steadily over the last years. And Karzai has been blamed by almost everyone for this development. However, there may be reasons behind his lack of confidence in the United States, in spite of the huge U.S. investments in Afghanistan in terms of men and money.

First, when Karzai asked the United States and NATO for a new agreement guiding the presence of international forces -- after an attack in the western village of Azizabad that cost around 90 civilian lives in August 2008 -- he received no answer. The president of the host country was simply ignored, even though the original agreement, signed in 2001 and before an Afghan government had been formed, was clearly outdated. When then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly announced in Brussels in March 2009 that a big Afghanistan conference would take place later that month in the Hague, Karzai and his foreign minister were not informed -- and learned about it through me as the UN Special Representative. During the debate about the "surge" in the fall of 2009, Afghan officials played a marginal role. It was mainly a debate behind closed doors in Washington. And when the first offensive was launched in the Marja district in February 2010, Karzai was skeptical about the impact it would have. Recently, the COIN strategy and the "battle for Afghan hearts and minds" have been described as failures, most notably by former military commander and Amb. Karl Eikenberry.

When the Taliban's Qatar office was opened and closed the following day in June 2013, the closure was seen as a result of Karzai's opposition to its name. However, Karzai had just received a guarantee from Obama that it would be called the Taliban political office in Doha, not the office of the" Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan," as the Taliban nevertheless called it. Karzai's reaction was widely shared in the Afghan society. It was seen as a Taliban attempt to obtain international recognition and created widespread fear. But this failure to start talks -- probably the most promising attempt for years -- was not a result of Karzai's objections; instead it came from inadequate U.S. and Qatari management. And as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates describes in his recent book, there was an attempt, led by late Richard Holbrooke, to prevent Karzai from being reelected in 2009. And it was a partial "success", since it prevented Karzai from reaching the 50 percent mark required to have the credibility he needed in the eyes of his own people.

In the early days of his leadership, Karzai had no experience in governing and relied on foreign "experts." Now, with his term as president coming to an end, he is an experienced leader of a sovereign country and deserves respect. He probably knows his country better than any other Afghan politician. Hopefully, the experience from Afghanistan will be a lesson that will make us more inclined to listen.

Kai Eide is a visiting PRIO fellow at the Brookings Institution. He was the U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2010, and has written Power Struggle over Afghanistan, a book about his time in Kabul.