The U.S. installed Hamid Karzai as the president of Afghanistan more than a decade ago, and has consulted with him regularly since in their up-and-down relationship during 12 years of war. The latest reward: Karzai told tribal leaders Thursday he doesn't trust the U.S., and suggested the signing of a long-sought security agreement he reached with senior U.S. officials should be punted to the next Afghan head of state.
The comments came at the start of a loya jirga, an assembly of some 2,500 Afghan tribal leaders that could scuttle the bilateral security agreement Karzai has reached with the U.S. As part of it, President Obama sent a letter to Karzai on Wednesday, offering regret that Afghan civilians were killed in the war and assurances that in the future, U.S. troops will not enter Afghan homes for military operations "except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals."
Karzai seeking those assurances had raised questions whether a deal could be reached. Still, even with them covered in Obama's letter, Karzai pulled his best impression of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, telling tribal leaders the security deal should not be signed until 2014, after an election to replace him is held. He did advocate the tribal elders approving the deal, but fired a shot across the bow at Americans in the process.
"My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them and they don't trust me," Karzai said, according to reports from Kabul. "During the past 10 years I have fought with them and they have made propaganda against me."
The decision immediately complicates the U.S.'s already uncertain future in Afghanistan. One U.S. official in Afghanistan told Foreign Policy he finds it hard to believe that Karzai's replacement will be able to sign the security agreement as one of his first acts in office, considering the mixed feelings in Afghanistan about the U.S. presence there. That would be a major problem, considering the U.S.'s 2014 deadline to withdraw thousands more combat forces from the war zone.
"It just doesn't make sense from the Afghan perspective," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The next president will... want to do all he can to show Afghan sovereignty. Being so closely tied to the U.S. via the [agreement] would seriously undermine that, particularly as a first major initiative."
The draft agreement, posted online by the Afghan government, calls for a residual force - likely to be about 10,000 troops -- to remain after 2014. Bases would be in nine locations: Kabul, Bagram, Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, Gardez, Jalabad, Shindand and Helmand province. It also requires the U.S. to continue funding the Afghan National Security Forces, and a key provision in which U.S. troops will be granted immunity from prosecution by the Afghan government. Iraq's unwillingness to grant similar protections led the U.S. to pull nearly all of its troops in 2011, setting the stage for an explosion in sectarian violence there this year.
Given all that, why would Karzai pass the buck? Analysts suggest the Afghan president wants a secure place in Afghan history, and may see more negatives than positives for his legacy among the Afghan people in signing on the dotted line.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said it appears that Karzai wants to share the political burden for the decisions he is faced with, rather than executing them himself. Not signing the security agreement now also gives him leverage over the U.S. in how the election to replace him plays out, O'Hanlon said. It also creates the possibility that the Afghan government could demand more concessions later.
"I always thought he would be inclined to draw it out, and this may be one more effort to do just that," O'Hanlon said. "He's always willing to put in caveats and exceptions and note his skepticism of the United States."
The best thing the U.S. can do at this point is act as though the agreement has been reached in principle, and adjust course later as necessary, O'Hanlon said. Karzai's comments complicate the future, but it also serves as affirmation that he truly is stepping down as president, he added.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said Karzai may hope to continue in Kabul in an unofficial "president-emeritus" role, and doesn't want to be seen as being too close to U.S. leaders. U.S. officials were likely hoping he'd sign the security agreement sooner rather than later, he said, but it's unlikely they'll be shocked by his change in tune.
"We've seen a lot of zig-zags in the pattern going foward," said Barno, who interacted with Karzai from 2003 to 2005 while leading coalition operations across the country. "I'm sure they were disappointed to see this, but I'm not sure they were entirely surprised."