Hamid Karzai’s Poison Pill
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Hamid Karzai’s Poison Pill


Hamid Karzai took one more wobbly step along the tightrope he walks as president of Afghanistan last week.

Coming just a couple of weeks before the world community holds a global summit on Afghanistan in Bonn on December 5, Karzai adroitly navigated through a four-day traditional grand assembly, or loya jirga, that he summoned to strengthen his political standing at home and to proclaim a set of conditions for the evolving U.S.-Afghanistan relationship as the United States draws down its forces in advance of 2014. It was a performance watched intently by friend and foe alike. Like the skilled survivor that Karzai has proven to be, once again he managed to provide a little something for everyone, though it’s unclear how long his balancing act can last.

More than two thousand delegates, reportedly weighted disproportionately toward Afghans from the southern provinces, Pashtuns, and Karzai’s own inner circle, endorsed Karzai’s proposed tradeoff: Karzai promised to give the United States military bases in Afghanistan for a decade after 2014, as part of a negotiated U.S.-Afghan strategic agreement, if – and only if – the United States agrees to stop house searches by Special Operations forces, call an end to controversial night raids in conflict zones, and dismantle foreign-controlled detention centers.

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Although the idea of an extended, decade-long American military presence in Afghanistan was designed to appeal to the Obama administration and to American military planners, the conditions announced by Karzai may have been designed as a kind of poison pill. Juggling appeals to nationalist, anti-occupation sentiments in the country, especially in the south, and the more sober reality that his impoverished, besieged government can’t long survive without ongoing U.S. and Western support, Karzai dangled the prospect of future military bases while trying to force the United States to call off some of the more egregiously unpopular measures that the United States deems critical to the counterinsurgency effort.

In Washington, officials at the White House and the State Department chose not to confront Karzai’s demand directly, publicly welcoming the idea of long-term bases, while at the Pentagon the military emphasized its determination to continue the counterinsurgency measures. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told the Wall Street Journal that the night raids are “very important,” adding that the “Special Operations Forces allow us to put constant pressure across the entire insurgent network that we're going after.”

In colorful language, however, Karzai compared Afghanistan to a lion. “The lion doesn’t like it if a foreigner intrudes into his house. The lion doesn’t like it if a stranger enters his house. The lion doesn’t want his children to be taken away by someone else in the night, the lion won’t let it happen,” he told the jirga. “They shouldn’t interfere in the lion’s house: just guard the four sides of the forest.”

It was the latest in a series of calculated affronts to the United States. Earlier this month, a top American general was fired for denouncing Karzai’s proclamation that he’d side with Pakistan in a conflict with the United States. And although the administration kept quiet on the more controversial aspects of Karzai’s speech to the jirga, it drew fire from hawkish members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a frequent McCain ally. And, writing in the The New Republic, Fouad Ajami called Karzai a “brazen and ungrateful client” who “offers us the most peculiar of gifts—the right to stay on indefinitely, shore up his regime, and pour our scarce treasure for his family and retainers. That Afghan lion doesn’t make its own kills.”

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