So what is up with Karzai? Are his actions truly beyond all understanding? Probably not. For years now, he’s pulled stunts that seem erratic, exasperating, and contrary to U.S. interests. But viewed from a different angle, they fall within the boundaries of rational behavior—and they’re not at all contrary to what Karzai might regard as his own interests.
First, even Karzai must realize that what we consider his craziest antic—his refusal to sign the bilateral security agreement—has no real impact. The Western pullout won’t take place, in the absence of a signed treaty, until the end of the year; his successor, who takes office well before then, will almost certainly sign it, so no harm done.
Meanwhile, Karzai must be taking some pleasure in making his protectors squirm. News stories appeared last summer reporting that Obama and many other U.S. officials were so fed up with Karzai that they were tempted to go with the “zero option”: just pull out all U.S. troops at the end of this year, leaving no one to keep training the Afghan army or chasing al-Qaida terrorists along the Pakistani border. But even now, they resist the temptation, knowing that Karzai will be gone in a few months, perhaps replaced by a more cooperative leader. By the same token, Karzai can make all the hay he wants, knowing that it won’t stop the troops from patrolling or the money from flowing.
Then there’s the long-term calculation. Even before NATO’s Lisbon summit, all the parties in the conflict (Karzai, the Taliban, Pakistan, India, and others) have been angling for advantage in what they see as an inevitable post-America dynamic. Even Gen. David Petraeus, one of the many U.S. commanders in this war, said that this kind of war ends in negotiations, not in classic victory or defeat. His view was that he needed to pound the Taliban to near-oblivion in order to bring them to the table on pliant terms. That didn’t work out, so Karzai reached out to the Taliban unconditionally. That didn’t work either, for the same reasons—why should the Taliban succumb, when they can wait for the right moment to set the terms of discussion?
Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban probably fell short of complete sincerity. Certainly he wouldn’t have had time to bring any serious talks to fruition. More likely, he foresees a Kabul government with some ministries held by the Taliban—if not an outright Taliban coup—and he wants the new rulers to know that Hamid Karzai was no American puppet; that he stood up for the rights of the Afghan people; even that, as he told some earlier this month, he feared the Americans more than he feared the Taliban.
In short, when the Americans pull out, Karzai wants to make sure that his neck doesn’t get strung up on a lamppost—as happened to Najibullah, the last Soviet-backed president, when the Taliban first came to power.
In a revealing recent interview conducted by Christina Lamb of the London Sunday Times, Karzai drew explicit parallels between the Soviets’ fate and, potentially, his own. Regarding his decision to release the detainees from Bagram (which he’d announced but hadn’t yet carried out), he recounted telling the Americans, several years ago, when the walls were going up, “Why are you building prisons in Afghanistan? Isn’t that what the Soviets did? And didn’t the Afghan people rise against the Soviets” for that reason?
In the interview, Karzai stresses over and over how the Americans violated his country’s sovereignty: the nighttime raids, the bombing campaigns, the sponsoring of local and regional police forces—parallel governing bodies—that threatened his own central rule. He said nothing about the context of these developments: the harboring of Taliban and al-Qaida militants, the weakness of the Afghan army, the corruption and weakness of Karzai’s governing bodies, which made those parallel entities necessary to keep the country from collapsing.
Still, Karzai has a point. America’s heavy footprint all these years made a corrosive impact not just on Karzai, but on Afghans broadly. And the hundreds of billions of dollars that poured in with that big footprint—many times more money than Afghanistan’s entire gross national product—facilitated the corruption. President Bush went into Afghanistan, and Obama escalated the war, without ever really understanding the place or the repercussions of their actions, however well-intentioned.
Is Karzai crazy? Maybe, a little. Anyone would go crazy after 12 years as Afghanistan’s president. But what’s really crazy is the Western-crafted, overcentralized political system in which Karzai was installed as president—and the war that has threatened and perpetuated his reign. When Obama said that the war will finally be over by the end of the year, he meant America’s role as a combatant in that war. The war itself will go on, one way or the other. And one can’t blame Karzai—who has proved himself, if nothing else, a wily survivor all these years—for watching his back.