Hamid Karzai Isn’t Crazy—He’s a Survivor

Military analysis.
Feb. 13 2014 5:43 PM

Hamid Karzai Isn’t Crazy

He’s a wily survivor whose main concern is watching his own back.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on January 25, 2014.
President Hamid Karzai at a press conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 25, 2014.

Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai acting crazy again?

Had he watched President Obama’s State of the Union address last month, Karzai would have noticed that the evening’s first standing ovation—and a bipartisan one, at that—came when Obama announced that “by the end of this year … America’s longest war will finally be over.”

The war, of course, is the one that U.S. forces have been fighting in (and for) Karzai’s country these last 12 years, at a cost of $700 billion and 2,310 American lives.

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At its Lisbon summit three years ago, NATO agreed, with Karzai’s consent, to pull its troops out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014. Obama’s declaration only affirmed that decision. He did, however, add a little twist, noting:

If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida.

The “small force” would amount to roughly 10,000 NATO troops, two-thirds of them American—not quite one-fifth the number there now. The key condition, however, is that the Afghan government must sign a bilateral security agreement, which has already been negotiated by U.S. and Afghan officials. If it isn’t signed, all NATO troops will leave at the end of the year, all military aid will be cut off—and, as a likely result, not just the Afghan army but the Afghan government, and probably the entire country, will go bankrupt.

You’d think that Karzai would eagerly dip his pen in the inkwell. Over the years, after all, the U.S. military presence has been the one firm barrier between Karzai’s neck and a rope tied to a lamppost. Last fall, a loya jirga—an assembly of tribal leaders from all over Afghanistan—urged Karzai to sign the agreement. The Afghan army’s senior officers have said they want it signed. So have all 11 of the top candidates in this April’s presidential election.

But Karzai hasn’t signed the document and says he won’t sign it in his two months left in office.

More than that, he’s spent the last several weeks doing all he can to antagonize his American protectors—his standard ploy amid crises. But this time, he’s outdone himself. In January, he publicly released photos of gruesome carnage that he said was caused by an American airstrike days earlier, thus disputing U.S. officials’ claim that the strikes had killed only a few civilians. Upon inspection, it turned out the photos were more than three years old.

In early February, news agencies reported that Karzai had been holding peace talks with the Taliban, without telling his Western allies. The talks, it was also reported, went nowhere.

Finally, on Thursday, Karzai released 65 detainees from a prison at Bagram Air Base, even though U.S. officials had warned him that all of them were clearly guilty of killing American troops and Afghan civilians. NATO turned the prison over to Afghan authorities last year after Karzai promised that no detainees would be released without a court trial. Yet these prisoners were freed after a Karzai-appointed commission met; there were no court trials.

Even Sen. John McCain, one of the war’s most avid supporters and perhaps Karzai’s most patient American friend, was clearly stunned by this latest move, telling the BBC that the Afghan president had gone “beyond anything I could ever understand.”