Hamid Karzai wants Americans to know that he’s not opposed to American assistance, as long as it’s assistance. The outgoing president of Afghanistan refused to sign off on the bilateral security agreement that would keep residual American forces in Afghanistan indefinitely, which forced the Obama administration to start considering a “zero-option” plan for a full withdrawal. Karzai tells the Washington Post that he doesn’t want the US and NATO to abandon Afghanistan, but he wants the military support to go after Taliban strongholds in Pakistan — and pitching a tantrum was the only way to get the attention of Americans:
In an unusually emotional interview, the departing Afghan president sought to explain why he has been such a harsh critic of the 12-year-old U.S. war effort here. He said he’s deeply troubled by all the casualties he has seen, including those in U.S. military operations. He feels betrayed by what he calls an insufficient U.S. focus on targeting Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. And he insists that public criticism was the only way to guarantee an American response to his concerns.
To Karzai, the war was not waged with his country’s interests in mind.
“Afghans died in a war that’s not ours,’ he said in the interview, his first in two years with a U.S. newspaper.
In Karzai’s mind, al-Qaeda is “more a myth than a reality” and the majority of the United States’ prisoners here were innocent. He’s certain that the war was “for the U.S. security and for the Western interest.”
Such statements elicit scorn and shock from U.S. officials, who point out that Americans have sacrificed mightily for Afghanistan — losing more than 2,000 lives and spending more than $600 billion in the effort to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban and rebuild the country.
The problem in Pakistan is the government, which wants to eventually make peace with its frontier provinces. American bombardment of Taliban leadership by drone warfare created a huge political problem for the elected government, which forced the US to scale back its efforts across the border (at least publicly). Instead of going after the sources of Taliban strength, NATO forces had to focus more on attacking them in Afghanistan, which transferred the “collateral damage” from Pakistan to Afghanistan — and created a political nightmare there.
Karzai doesn’t oppose the BSA per se, but he wants nothing to do with it. In a little-noticed development, the US finally backed down and agreed to wait for his successor after elections this spring:
But in a phone call with Karzai last week, President Obama said he will accept having the winner of Afghanistan’s April presidential elections sign the pact. Karzai indicated that he views that as a best-case scenario. He won’t have to submit to U.S. demands — such as the continuation of counterterrorism operations — but the popular security agreement will probably still be finalized.
“It’s good for them to sign it with my successor,” the Afghan leader said.
On the security agreement, as with several other issues, Karzai’s antagonistic approach seems to have succeeded, in the sense that he has forced U.S. officials to move deadlines — and even to reshape policy.
In essence, he played chicken with the Obama administration, and ended up winning. The zero option appears to be off the table again, at least in the Post’s reading of a Tuesday phone call between Karzai and Obama. Here’s what the White House had to say about it, emphasis mine:
With regard to the Bilateral Security Agreement, in advance of the NATO Defense Ministerial, President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning. Specifically, President Obama has asked the Pentagon to ensure that it has adequate plans in place to accomplish an orderly withdrawal by the end of the year should the United States not keep any troops in Afghanistan after 2014. At the same time, should we have a BSA and a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government, a limited post-2014 mission focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces and going after the remnants of core Al Qaeda could be in the interests of the United States and Afghanistan. Therefore, we will leave open the possibility of concluding a BSA with Afghanistan later this year. However, the longer we go without a BSA, the more challenging it will be to plan and execute any U.S. mission. Furthermore, the longer we go without a BSA, the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.
I’m not entirely sure I read this as a complete retreat on the zero option itself, but it’s the end of using it as an active threat against Karzai. The White House appears to have conceded that Karzai can’t be moved, and the warnings to conclude something soon are aimed at whoever follows Karzai into leadership. It looks like Karzai’s tantrums worked at least to that extent.
Of course, the entire debate over the BSA may end up being mooted by Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the escalating sanctions the West places on Moscow. Expect Putin to retaliate by threatening our supply lines into the Af-Pak theater, which may mean a full withdrawal anyway regardless of what the Afghanistan people want.