Hamid Karzai’s intransigence over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States has deeply frustrated and infuriated many Americans who see him as somewhat of an ingrate after a war that drained U.S. coffers and spirits over the course of 13 years.
From a national interest perspective, the deal makes perfect sense for the Afghan central government. The United States effectively propped up the Karzai regime since the Bonn conference and is now bending over backwards, offering to hang around after the general withdrawal of coalition troops and train Afghan security forces and even conduct counter-terrorism operations. All this is being offered by the Obama administration against a backdrop of relative political disinterest and derision back home – over 2,000 American lives and over half a trillion dollars were lost in Afghanistan.
However, Karzai’s game isn’t national interest – at least not entirely. Karzai, who is approaching the twilight of career as Afghanistan’s president, craves relevance after Afghanistan’s elections in 2014. This desire for relevance and post-election influence necessitates that Karzai entrench favor among his Pashtun supporters by proudly resisting American demands, at least on first glance.
American Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have both recently been in Kabul and received assurances from Karzai associates and Afghans in-the-know that sooner or later, the BSA will be signed and on terms close to the original draft proposed by the United States. Karzai’s decision to engage in a tug of war over the terms of the agreement is a calculated move for domestic political ends.
Empathizing with Karzai isn’t hard to do; a frictionless path to the BSA might have made Karzai appear too eager to accept a continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan, making him appear weak. Instead, Karzai stirs up a bit of a struggle for the United States, appearing to his countrymen as a strong leader, focused on protecting the dignity of the Afghan people. Indeed, Karzai demanded that the United States provide guarantees that its troops would not conduct operations in which they would enter Afghan homes under any circumstances as part of the conditions for the BSA.
A counterargument to what I’ve laid out here is of course the powerful mandate from the Loya Jirga, which overwhelmingly recommended that Karzai sign the agreement. The Jirga isn’t where Karzai’s sights lie in the post-2014 calculus. Afghanistan’s clientelist politics demand that its elites lay down networks of support with foundations in geographically contiguous ethno-linguisic groups – in Karzai’s case, he is focused on a politically significant Pashtun majority.
Having explained what motivated Karzai in this case, it is worth noting that his strategy ultimate harms the Afghan national interest in the long term. Karzai is walking on eggshells with the United States right now, and perhaps misjudges Washington’s interest in continuing to fund the Afghan government. The coalition mission in Afghanistan always had strong ideological underpinnings that were at odds with the Kabul government’s goals of short-term stability and security. Today, the ideological underpinnings have evaporated and the United States (and almost everyone neighboring Afghanistan) wants a strong government in Kabul, capable of enforcing security and stability all over the country.
The BSA will be signed and U.S.-Afghan cooperation on security will carry on under a new legal arrangement. Karzai, too, will pass the helm to a successor. Hamid Karzai’s bold posturing, most significantly, shifts the focus of what should be an agreement between the Afghan people and the United States to one man’s agenda. Karzai needs to recognize that his international mandate from Bonn and his democratic mandate from his previous electoral victory have both begun to erode; his attempts to preserve leverage in Washington and leverage in Kabul could have the unintended consequence of sowing even more mistrust between the United States and Afghanistan.