he Americans find themselves at their wits end with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Even as lame duck president, he has put his spanner in the Bilateral Security Agreement that the Americans desperately want signed immediately. They have threatened to withdraw all their forces and leave Afghanistan to its fate unless it is signed immediately but Karzai remains unfazed. He seems to dare them to walk away.
December 04, 2013, 20:59 EST
Much to the chagrin of the Americans, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is playing hardball over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would allow US troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
It is not their stay per se that irks Karzai. His real beef is about US troops barging into people’s homes, considered a great insult by all Afghans. Karzai does not wish to go down in history as the man who authorized the violation of Afghan honour. Karzai conceded the other contentious issue—immunity for US forces from Afghan law—but not the Americans breaking down Afghan doors at night and barging in.
The issue is so sensitive with the Afghans that they would rather give their lives than submit to such humiliation. The Americans refuse to learn from past mistakes or acknowledge that this could be a sensitive issue with the Afghans.
With Karzai digging in his heels by refusing to sign the BSA even though the Afghan Loya Jirga approved the agreement last week, the Americans are getting panicky. Yesterday US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to bypass Karzai by claiming that the Afghan defence minister could sign the agreement instead.
In the current environment of distrust, this only added to Karzai’s anger and merely strengthened his resolve not to sign the deal. He has said the next government that would be formed after the April 5, 2014 presidential elections should take responsibility for signing it.
This neatly absolves Karzai from responsibility by handing the hot potato to the next government. The Taliban have warned against signing the agreement and vowed to exact revenge from anyone doing so. They consider this treason against the Afghan people.
The Americans have reacted angrily to Karzai’s tantrums by withholding fuel and other material support from Afghan forces. On December 1, Karzai lashed out calling it a violation of America’s earlier commitment.
“Afghan forces are facing interruption in conducting their activities as a result of the cessation of fuel and supportive services,” he said. Then he issued a blunt warning at a meeting where the US ambassador James Cunningham was also present: “From this moment on, America’s searching of houses, blocking of roads and streets, military operations are over, and our people are free in their country,” he said.
Karzai went on: “If Americans raid a house again, then this agreement will not be signed.”
Will the Afghan president hold his ground or is this the usual bluster he periodically indulges in? His detractors accuse him of acting erratically because he has become virtually irrelevant since he cannot run for office again.
While it is true that Karzai is cannot run again, he does not want to give a blank cheque to the Americans to manipulate the forthcoming presidential elections to install their own man in power. By withholding the agreement, Karzai wants to retain some degree of control over the political process.
He has also floated the idea that next year’s presidential election may be postponed. Further, given Afghan culture, Karzai will not become irrelevant even after April 2014 provided he plays his hand carefully.
Unless murdered (as Daud, Tarakai, Amin and Najibullah were) former presidents continue to play some role in Afghan affairs. Sibghatullah Mujaddidi and the late Burhanuddin Rabbani are playing or played major roles in the country’s affairs.
Karzai realizes that the Americans are desperate for the deal and he is trying to maximize his advantage. What he really wants is unclear—and he could be genuine in not conceding on the night raids—his refusal has caused great anxiety in Washington.
This has been heightened by the blockade of Nato supplies through Peshawar to Torkham as a result of Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf’s (PTI) demand that the US stop its drone strikes in Pakistan. The US was forced to announce today that it was halting withdrawal of its equipment from Afghanistan through Pakistan until the situation about the blockade becomes clear.
The US, it seems, is caught between a rock and hard place.