for years, a debate has raged in Washington: Is Hamid Karzai on another planet?
Lately, those who think Afghanistan’s mercurial president has left this earthly plane have had the upper hand. Much recent reporting paints a picture of a paranoid man sequestered in his palace, fuming over American slights, threatening to release dozens of terrorist suspects from prison and plotting to join forces with the Taliban.
All this comes against the backdrop of U.S.-Afghan preparations to make 2014 the year of transition to full Afghan control of their own destiny, a goal President Karzai has repeatedly embraced. A key first step would be endorsing the already completed U.S.-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement permitting a modest number of American troops to stay beyond the 2014 withdrawal deadline—but Karzai has adamantly refused to sign. Meanwhile, Karzai’s fulminations comparing the United States to a “colonial power” and his denunciation of NATO have drawn warm praise from the Taliban. All this for a man through whom the United States has funneled nearly $100 billion in aid, to say nothing of the billions that have been spent trying to stabilize his country.
So, what is Karzai up to?
To answer that question, let’s first remember that Hamid Karzai is a politician. And while he’s not running in the Afghan presidential campaign that began Monday, Feb. 3, he does seem to be maneuvering for future relevance, drawing on his period in office and on his tribal status as leader of the important Pashtun Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan. Karzai may see the predominantly Pashtun Taliban gaining strength after the U.S. withdrawal, reckoning that he has much to gain and little to lose by bashing America. And becoming a more vocal critic of the United States obfuscates the American support that lifted him into the presidency after 9/11.
All of the leading contenders to replace Karzai criticize his anti-American course. His former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmay Rasoul; his former close advisor and finance minister Ashraf Ghani; and his older brother, Qayyum Karzai, have all declared that they would sign the troop deal with the United States. Each seeks to separate himself from the president, stressing that Afghanistan must maintain a strategic partnership with the West.
But Karzai’s unlikely to change direction. He is probably attempting to position himself as a future bridge between the Taliban and the next Afghan government. He may hope to be seen as an elder tribal leader and international statesman deserving respect and deference by the winning candidate, and by Afghan political, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders generally—including the Taliban. He might decide to tone his anti-Americanism down a notch now that the presidential campaign is underway and, constitutionally, he is a lame duck. And while the U.S.-led coalition should not count on it, Karzai might even deputize a cabinet minister to sign the troop agreement on his behalf before his successor takes office. But don’t expect him to keep quiet.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s threats and serial deadlines for a troop deal are playing into Karzai’s hands. So is President Obama’s constant refrain that, for America, the Afghan war is over. And former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s bald admission that the Obama administration attempted to downgrade or even remove Karzai from office has probably only hardened the Afghan leader’s resolve to hew to his anti-American approach.
Karzai clashed with the Americans in 2009 over his fraudulent second election, and since then has incessantly spoken out against the United States. He’s complained of violations of Afghan sovereignty, civilian casualties from air raids, U.S.-maintained detention facilities and collaboration with Pakistan’s attempts to force its radical proxies into the Afghan peace process. In 2012, the Obama administration and German negotiators, worked closely behind the scenes with Pakistani officials to open a Taliban office in the Gulf emirate of Qatar. Karzai derailed this initiative while pursuing his own Afghan-to-Afghan Taliban dialogue.
Most Afghans believe Karzai acted correctly in rejecting the Qatar peace initiative. Like Karzai, the top-tier presidential candidates are suspicious that America may once again be coordinating with Pakistan to decide who rules in Kabul. Individually, they were all in the moderate-nationalist wing of the mujahideen in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the CIA and its partners in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate instead favored militant extremists like the virulently anti-American Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqanis and the semi-literate Afghan mullahs who make up the Taliban’s core leadership. The resentments go back years. In September 1991, as the U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan, I witnessed Karzai’s flash of outrage when the CIA and the ISI filled Hekmatyar’s warehouses with a huge U.S. shipment of captured Iraqi weapons from the Gulf War. A shouting Karzai complained to me that the moderate-nationalist mujahideen had sent a contingent to Saudi Arabia to join the U.S. coalition, while Hekmatyar flew to Baghdad to show his support for Saddam Hussein.
In the years after the post-9/11 Taliban defeat, moderate-nationalist Afghans have winced as the United States has conveyed more than $20 billion in unconditioned aid to Pakistan, mostly to Pakistan’s army. The ISI re-established training camps for the Taliban forces fleeing back to Pakistan. By 2005, American soldiers were complaining about heavier and heavier traffic on the “jihadi highways” stretching from the militants’ revamped sanctuaries inside Pakistan across the border into Afghanistan, where they have launched attacks on Afghan and U.S. troops. As a result, Pakistan through its Afghan radical proxies is better poised to re-Talibanize Afghanistan today than at any time since the U.S. military drove the Taliban back into Pakistan in 2001.
The next several months will be critical in determining whether the United States suffers a strategic defeat in Afghanistan. That is not inevitable, nor should it be. America has invested too much in blood and treasure in Afghanistan to see it fail now. And what happens there will have a major effect on the decades-long struggle between moderates and extremists in the broader Muslim world.
Washington needs to plan and act strategically, not tactically. The focus must be regional and long-term, with diplomacy as the centerpiece. There is a great overlap of interests among the major regional players, including China, Russia, India and Saudi Arabia to build on; Pakistan should be brought along. With Afghanistan, it has the most to gain from an Afghanistan finally at peace, with trade corridors, pipelines and a surge in commerce connecting South Asia to China, the Middle East and Europe.
The United States has provided enormous assistance to Afghanistan since 9/11. There are still huge problems, but an Afghan state is today back on its feet as its third presidential election approaches. Despite the best of intentions, Republican and Democratic administrations since 9/11 have made many mistakes. The final and most costly mistake, however, would be to abandon Afghanistan, clearing the way for the re-Talibanization of the country and for Pakistan to re-assert its domination in Afghanistan through its al Qaeda-connected Afghan proxies. The Obama administration should persevere in its current way forward, encouraging the intra-Afghan peace process but otherwise staying out of it, while insisting that Pakistan do likewise. As for Hamid Karzai, it’s time to stop putting him and his bizarre outbursts at the center of our diplomacy. His relevance is fading fast.
Peter Tomsen is author of the recently published The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers. He was U.S. special envoy and ambassador on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992.