Karzai embarks on a high-stakes quest for Afghan sovereignty

The Washington Post

As Afghanistan’s second presidential election loomed in early 2009, President Hamid Karzai described his once-genial relationship with the U.S. as a “gentle wrestling match” that he hoped to win.

Exactly four years later, another Afghan election is nearing, and his match with Washington has become far more grueling — a sometimes blistering fight that Karzai has waged this month with a flurry of public statements and speeches. But this time, the invective is bolder and the stakes are higher, as Karzai is interfering with U.S. President Barack Obama’s own political aims of ending the Afghan war smoothly.

In recent weeks, Karzai has accused the U.S. of collaborating with the Taliban, torturing Afghan civilians, kidnapping university students and deliberately violating his country’s sovereignty by attempting to undermine its institutions.

Karzai, who has no clear political rival, has said he will retire when his second term ends in 2014, as mandated by the Afghan Constitution. But officials in Kabul say the president’s public excoriation of the U.S. is a strategic move in a different campaign, one he fears losing: shedding his domestic image as an American puppet and establishing himself as an autonomous leader.

According to these officials, Karzai is convinced that publicly establishing his sovereignty will help him garner the support he needs to sell a partnership with the U.S. to the Afghan public, paving the way for the presence of American troops beyond 2014. Without such an agreement, political instability and deteriorating security could prompt the re-emergence of ethnic and political factions, including some that count Karzai as an enemy and would like to see him dead.

“We need the people’s support,” said Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman, explaining the logic behind some of the president’s recent statements. “We need that support in order to sign the bilateral security agreement.”

If that is Karzai’s aim, it is often hard to discern from his words. His public remarks are filled with insouciance toward a long-term agreement — a clear message that he has no attachment to U.S. forces if they don’t play by his rules.

He seems eager to prove that he is willing to stomach an Afghanistan without foreign troops if that means he’ll have proven his independence. Karzai, who came to power thanks to Washington’s support, would then leave behind a far different legacy, as officials close to him see it: that of a strong, sovereign Afghan leader “working for his own people,” Faizi said.

Recent interviews with Karzai’s top advisers have yielded the same brand of defiance. Even as foreign troop levels and billions of dollars in aid hang in the balance, Karzai’s presidential palace believes it has more leverage than the White House or NATO.

“For signing an agreement with the United States, we may pay a very high price,” said Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai’s chief of staff, alluding to the possibility that such a deal could galvanize the insurgency and upset rivals Iran and Pakistan.

With Karzai’s critiques vacillating between specific points of contention and sweeping attacks, some U.S. officials wonder whether there is a basic strategic misalignment between him and Washington as they head into the endgame. “If it’s a strategic problem and it’s just getting worse, that needs to be addressed before we can dive back into technical issues,” said a senior White House official.

Karzai’s domestic critics say his fixation on lambasting the West comes at the cost of more important domestic problems that he has ignored, such as corruption and ineffective local governance. They worry that alienating the United States will lead to the total withdrawal of foreign troops and a more perilous security situation in Afghanistan. Although Karzai’s popularity varies across the country, concerns about Afghanistan after 2014, when the vast majority of foreign troops are due to leave, are pervasive.

Some of Karzai’s political opponents have voiced concern that the absence of foreign oversight would help Karzai either stay in office beyond 2014 or manipulate the election results so that he can effectively choose his successor. The president vehemently denies those accusations, but even national political figures have expressed concern about announcing their candidacy until Karzai’s intentions become clearer.

U.S. officials in Afghanistan have refrained from castigating Karzai publicly. Instead, they say they’ve looked for ways to make quiet progress on some of his key criticisms, namely the failure to hand over the Parwan Detention Center at the U.S. Bagram Air Base and the presence of American special forces in volatile Wardak Province.

“We believe communications on sensitive issues such as the Parwan facility or Wardak are best done in private,without the added pressure of media coverage that can paint people into positions that are ultimately unhelpful,” said Col. Thomas Collins, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The conclusion for some U.S. officials was that even constructive negotiations led by seemingly influential Afghans can be rendered worthless when it comes time for Karzai’s final authorization. That has worrisome implications for the bilateral security agreement, now being negotiated by another emissary, Afghan Ambassador to the United States Ahmad Eklil Hakimi.

“Karzai is concerned with his legacy, but he can’t have his cake and eat it too. He’s relying on the West to defend him from al-Qaida . . . but he’s single-handedly endangering his key lifeline to the West,” said a former senior U.S. official.

Yet Karzai has resolved to speak loudly about issues while they’re negotiated, Faizi said. “When we are not being heard in private meetings, it is then that the president comes to speak to the people,” he said.

That attitude isn’t new for the president. For years, he publicly criticized the United States for its lack of concern over civilian casualties and its unilateral night operations. On both issues, Karzai saw progress. The U.S. military started paying more attention to civilian deaths, which dropped considerably, and night operations are now crafted and led by Afghans.

Some Afghans say Karzai’s ability in the past to get what he wanted from the U.S. has energized his current willfulness. “He is used to getting what he asks for, and so he keeps demanding more,” said one senior Afghan official.

But Karzai’s supporters say their president isn’t just playing politics. At heart, he’s a dovish leader charged with governing during an 11-year war, they argue. When groups of Afghans gather in the presidential palace’s meeting rooms to complain about what they perceive as American abuses, Karzai responds viscerally and angrily. The strident public statements quickly follow.

“The U.S. is a superpower and Afghanistan is a poor country,” Faizi said, “but to the president, that doesn’t mean our sovereignty shouldn’t be taken seriously.”