Karzai’s Bet: U.S. Is Bluffing in Warning on Security Pact

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Karzai’s Bet: U.S. Is Bluffing in Warning on Security Pact

By ROD NORDLAND and ALISSA J. RUBIN

Published: November 26, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan — When President Hamid Karzai met with an audience of supporters gathered by the Afghan state television network, RTA, six months ago, he was asked what he would consider a favorable conclusion to the security negotiations he was conducting with the United States.

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 “It is favorable if they surrender to us,” he said.

Another question: But what if instead they just left?

He smirked, then said: “The U.S. has come and will not go, brother. It does not go. Therefore, ask for your demands and don’t worry.”

That unguarded moment in front of a friendly audience speaks volumes about the impasse between Mr. Karzai and his American allies.

In the face of a warning delivered in person on Monday by the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, that the United States would consider leaving no troops at all in Afghanistan past 2014 if Mr. Karzai did not promptly sign a long-term security agreement, he has made it clear that he considers it a bluff. Not only did he refuse to sign, he added conditions, including the release of all inmates from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

He is, in effect, betting billions of dollars in international assistance that the United States does not want to go.

His close aides have echoed that assessment through the recent days of diplomatic crisis. (“We don’t believe there’s any zero option,” his spokesman, Aimal Faizi, said recently.) But their optimism was not widely shared in Afghanistan on Tuesday, as Ms. Rice flew back to Washington with no promise of the follow-up talks Mr. Karzai said he wanted to pursue.

Even many of Mr. Karzai’s friends were criticizing his refusal to conclude a deal.

Since Sunday, Mr. Karzai’s most high-profile critic has been a man widely considered to be his political mentor and godfather, Sibghatullah Mujadidi. Mr. Mujadidi, 89, was the chairman of the gathering of Afghan leaders, the loya jirga, that approved the security deal over the weekend and recommended that Mr. Karzai sign it by year’s end.

But when Mr. Karzai refused, and said he would continue negotiating with the Americans on new grounds, Mr. Mujadidi stunned the president by vowing to quit his government posts and go into exile if the agreement were not signed in the next few days.

“Unfortunately President Karzai did not see the interests of his country, and he’s trying to enforce his personal opinions and wrongheaded ideas on us,” Mr. Mujadidi said. “Becoming president made him prideful.”

Some Afghan officials worried that their president, who has made brinkmanship with the Americans his defining trait, had finally gone too far.

“Mark my words, if we do not sign this security agreement with the Americans, things will get worse than Iraq and the 1990s Afghan civil war,” said Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a member of Parliament from Paktika Province. He urged the Americans to remember that “Karzai is not Afghanistan, he is just another individual, with illogical and illegal demands that are against all diplomatic norms.”

“We don’t want the Americans to burn down the entire house to exterminate one louse,” he added.

If the Americans do completely withdraw at the end of 2014, leaving no long-term training mission and virtually guaranteeing that international aid would not flow, the Afghans might face the disintegration of their security services. Some predict a descent into civil war, or a possible Taliban resurgence.

The Americans risk losing long-term bases in Afghanistan, and a staging platform for counterterrorism missions against Al Qaeda and other groups in the region.

Stephen Biddle, a political science professor at George Washington University, compared it to a game of chicken, when two cars are driving head on at each other to see which one will swerve first.

“Neither driver wants a wreck,” he said, “but they are both willing to risk something they don’t want in order to get something they do want, and that creates car wrecks occasionally.”

Ahmad Behzad, an influential member of Parliament from Herat Province, said that a full withdrawal would mean the reversal of every significant achievement of the past 12 years of American presence. But he said he did not think that would happen. “The United States and NATO strategists know that a full withdrawal in the long term is not going to be in the interests of either side,” he said.

Beyond that, Mr. Behzad said, Mr. Karzai will face a huge backlash from the Afghan public if he does not sign the security deal. “People will pour into the streets and force him to sign,” he said.

Each side has still left itself a way out. Ms. Rice did not say the Americans would definitely walk away after 2014, only that they would begin planning for the possibility.

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