With a presidential election less than two months away, all eyes in Afghanistan should be on the coming vote. It could be Afghanistan’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power, and 11 candidates are running. Instead, Kabul is buzzing over the actions of term-limited outgoing president Hamid Karzai, whose strange behavior confounds allies and enemies alike.
After spending nearly a year negotiating a status of forces arrangement with NATO, Karzai is refusing to sign the document. He accuses the United States of pressuring his government to accept a permanent force of 16,000 foreign troops, insisting, “No pressure, no threats, and no psychological war against our people will force us to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement.”
In fact, no country has been more supportive of Karzai than the United States. Washington spends about $1 million annually for each soldier deployed to Afghanistan, according to Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. At the height of the troop surge back in 2009-10, the United States was paying $100 billion a year to station 100,000 troops in the region. Today, the United States and other foreign donors provide 90 percent of Afghanistan’s total public expenditures and underwrite the entire cost of the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces.
America’s sacrifice has bought little gratitude. Karzai regularly denounces NATO for causing civilian casualties while seldom mentioning deaths from Taliban attacks. Karzai insists he will free dozens of Taliban detainees despite evidence that some are responsible for the deaths of 11 Afghan soldiers. Recently, he implied that Washington was involved in a Kabul restaurant bombing for which the Taliban took credit. Not even his admirers ever claimed Karzai was an Atatürk. Today his erstwhile allies in Kabul’s diplomatic community describe his mutterings as “paranoid” and “delusional.”
Will American troops be serving in Afghanistan this time next year? In theory, the new Afghan president could sign the Bilateral Security Agreement. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the four leading candidates for president support a continued NATO presence. But the likelihood of recounts and a runoff following the April 5 balloting may prevent a new president from taking office until June. The successful candidate certainly will feel pressure from the Taliban. After former foreign minister and presidential frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah made his support for the security agreement known, two of his election workers were shot dead in the western city of Herat.
In fairness, no Afghan politician can last long without some paranoia. Since the late 1970s, five of the country’s top political leaders have been assassinated. The most recent was former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who, after being named head of the country’s High Peace Council in 2011, was embraced on his 71st birthday by a “peace seeking” Taliban commander with explosives hidden in his turban. Four other members of the Peace Council died in the blast. Earlier that year, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother who served on the Kandahar Provincial Council, was killed by his bodyguard in Kandahar. “This is the way of life for the people of Afghanistan,” the president noted on hearing the news. If Karzai seemed resigned to the tragedy, it’s probably because he himself has survived six attempts on his life.
Karzai’s disenchantment with the United States dates to early 2009, when President Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, publicly suggested that a politician more gifted than Karzai should run for president in the election that year. Meanwhile, the surge was generating its own frustrations for Karzai. Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus were determined to implement the counterinsurgency strategy, which called for the Army to “clear, hold, and build”—build, that is, legitimate government institutions in rural areas. Karzai objected: Afghanistan was capable of creating its own government institutions. He insisted the war should be fought in Pakistan where the Taliban leadership lived. Needless to say, the demand that the war be waged in a nuclear-armed country with more than 180 million people did not bear discussion.
“Karzai’s inability to get the United States to attack the Taliban inside Pakistan’s tribal areas made him look weak to Afghan tribal leaders,” remembers one American diplomat in Afghanistan at the time. “There were real seeds from which Karzai’s paranoia grew.”
And grew. A year ago Karzai was primed to enter retirement as a friend of the international community. He could have been a roving U.N. ambassador; perhaps an adjunct professor at Princeton. Today he is the embodiment of unpredictability, probably unemployable in or out of Afghanistan.
Ironically, Karzai’s 11th-hour xenophobia may be his ticket to a longer life. In a country where the future is uncertain and the present problematic, the past looms large. “Hamid Karzai can’t afford to be seen as anybody’s puppet,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research who is a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “He knows the story of Shah Shuja.”
That 19th-century Afghan emir hitched his wagon to the British Empire. It seemed a safe bet until the British were expelled from the country in the First Afghan War. Rudyard Kipling’s “The Young British Soldier” vividly describes what befell the British on their retreat from Kabul: When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains . . . Alas, no poet lingered to record the gruesome fate of Shah Shuja.
Today, campaign posters are going up across Afghanistan. Each contains the name, photo, and political affiliation of a candidate for president. Many also have a small portrait in one corner. It shows the face of Mohammed Daoud Khan, the president of Afghanistan who traveled to Moscow in 1977 and bluntly told Leonid Brezhnev to stop interfering in Afghan affairs. “You will not dictate how Afghanistan is governed,” he reportedly told the Soviet general secretary. “Afghanistan is a free country.”
The following year, Afghan Communists beholden to Moscow assassinated Daoud. His image lives on as a symbol of Afghan independence from foreign powers. Defenders of Karzai’s recent behavior insist he’s just trying to emulate Daoud. Perhaps so. But Hamid Karzai should remember that the truest test of a patriot is the ability to distinguish between friend and foe.
David DeVoss covered the assassination of Mohammed Daoud, two subsequent presidential assassinations, and
the 1979 Soviet invasion. More recently, he has worked on economic development projects in Afghanistan.