Afghan President Hamid Karzai stayed true to his reputation as a calculating nationalist firebrand on Thursday when he threatened what had been a virtually finished security pact with the United States to permit a contingency force of American troops to remain behind after most withdraw next year. Instead of signing the agreement, Karzai told thousands of tribal elders it would have to wait until after April elections to replace him, despite private admonitions and public requests from U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry — and even some of his own political allies in Kabul.
After suggesting the American president needed to apologize for past atrocities and wrongs inflicted on the Afghan population, and then actually securing a reasonably strong vow to respect Kabul’s sovereignty, Karzai has thrown a curveball at the entire NATO coalition and the U.S. in particular. This has become something of a habit for him as he curries favor with his conservative base and seeks to evade the ire of Islamist radicals, and some analysts believe he wants to delay the decision in order to avoid lame-duck status at the end of his term and perhaps even gain extra influence over the vote itself. Either way, we now know that getting Obama to write an open letter did not satisfy Karzai’s need for power theatrics; he wants more. And while some of this may be a realistic interpretation by the outgoing president of his own political prerogatives, we get the sense any security pact will be a shaky foundation for future counter-terorrism operations at best. Which is to say that the fickle nature of Afghan politics and the incentives for anti-Western aggrandizement will constantly test a deal if one is even realized
Looking ahead, much of the remaining U.S. presence will likely be characterized as “training,” even if that is merely a euphemism to avoid the appearance of maintaining an active combat force. As Jacob Siegel writes at The Daily Beast, “training Afghan security forces is not merely a pretext for other counter-terror operations, though it may also be that.” It’s still a tough sell to a population wary after a decade of living with foreign troops (not just Americans) essentially beyond the control of their laws, massed throughout their streets and businesses, with a corrupt and disliked political system acquiescing to it all. But one suspects even if Karzai’s bit of gamesmanship doesn’t cut it with the broader public, it may provide the excuse Afghan political elites need to embrace the continued U.S. presence they know is essential for day-to-day security from the threat of the Taliban.