Karzai balks on a deal

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is playing a dangerous game. His term in office expires next April, and to preserve his leverage over political developments, he has withheld assent to a security agreement with the United States that sets the terms for the future U.S. troop presence.

Washington has threatened to pull most of its troops out if he does not move quickly. Karzai remains unbending, putting his personal interest above that of his country.

The U.S., along with other foreign countries, seeks to withdraw the bulk of its troops at the end of 2014, when the NATO mandate for operations in Afghanistan expires. It has for about a year negotiated the terms of an agreement with Karzai’s government that would allow roughly 8,000 U.S. troops to stay on in Afghanistan after that scheduled departure date.

The agreement they have tentatively reached would allow about 15,000 foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan to train and assist the fledging Afghan military.

Since the outline was agreed, Karzai has piled on additional conditions. He has demanded assurances from the U.S. that it will not interfere with Afghan elections scheduled for next April.

The U.S., along with other Western governments, condemned the last ballot that kept Karzai in office, concluding that the ballot was not free. Ultimately, however, the critics backed down and Karzai stayed in office.

Karzai also wants the U.S. to promise that it will halt military raids on Afghan homes, as well as put an end to air strikes against Afghan targets. The week before last, a drone strike killed a 2-year old child, giving Karzai’s complaint additional weight.

Coalition forces acknowledged that an airstrike was conducted against “an insurgent riding a motorbike” that killed a child and wounded two others.

Current rules of engagement in fact prohibit U.S. forces from entering Afghan homes except when they are with Afghan military forces. Moreover, Karzai wants U.S. help to start peace talks between his government and Taliban rebels.

To that end, Karzai has demanded that Washington release 17 Afghan prisoners from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

The Afghan president is known for 11th-hour negotiating and heavy doses of brinkmanship. This latest gambit is in keeping with that reputation. His demands make plain Karzai’s desire to present himself as the protector of Afghan sovereignty. Any such deal has provisions that are difficult to swallow. (Japanese know well that bitter truth whenever there are questions about the U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.)

More important, however, is his desire to protect the interests of his family and friends in a post-Karzai regime. The president has served two terms and is constitutionally barred from serving a third. He wants to maintain as much influence as possible over the next government.

Ensuring that his preferred successor wins the April ballot is one way of doing that. Equally helpful would be brokering a deal with the Taliban, which would confirm and consolidate his status as a deal maker.

The stakes are high. The U.S. has insisted that any deal must be signed soon or it will pull virtually all its troops out of Afghanistan. Those willing to call Washington’s bluff need only look at Iraq to see that the Obama administration can hold firm and will not put its troops at risk without an agreement.

In addition, failure to reach a deal puts at risk $4 billion a year in support for the Afghan military by the U.S. and other allied governments.

The impasse is solely Karzai’s doing. He called a Loya Jirga, a grand council of some 2,500 tribal elders, to consider the deal. Every one of the attendees voted the week before last to back the agreement — U.S. officials called it “a compelling affirmation” — but Karzai still balked. When told by the meeting chair that the group would be “disappointed” by his failure to sign the deal, he said “fine” and walked off stage.

Karzai does not trust the U.S., and the feeling is mutual. Last week, the Afghan government accused the U.S. of withholding military supplies to force Kabul to sign the deal, a charge that was denied. But the Afghan president has to be careful that he does not end up serving the interest of other groups equally interested in seeing the Bilateral Security Agreement fail.

The Taliban has little desire to talk to Karzai — it considers him a U.S. puppet — or any other leader in Kabul who has real power. They prefer weak leaders who are more eager to strike a deal that will then legitimize the Taliban as an actor in post-2014 politics.

Pakistan is eager to see a rapid reduction in other outside forces so that it can maximize its influence in Afghanistan.

Karzai needs to start acting like a president. His actions appear to be driven by pique and the substitution of his own interest for that of the country. He needs to put Afghanistan’s national interest first and sign the Bilateral Security Agreement.