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.”

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.

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