On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a report essentially uncovering the motivation for Karzai’s intransigence in signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States and his generally acerbic disposition towards American interests: his government has long been engaged in backchannel negotiations with the Taliban without the approval or knowledge of the United States. U.S. diplomats and Karzai’s government have attempted (with little success) to coordinate their approaches to the Taliban since the failed Doha process began.
According to Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai knowledgeable about the backchannel contacts, “The last two months have been very positive.” He adds that “These parties were encouraged by the president’s stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards.” This was contradicted by other officials, both Afghan and Western; according to skeptics, “whatever the Taliban may have intended at the outset, they no longer had any intention of negotiating with the Afghan government.”
It may seem like the U.S.-Afghan back-and-forth on the BSA has been a long-term feature of relations between the two countries, but as recently as October 2013, the passage of the BSA appeared to have been a fait accompli. So when Karzai refused to sign the BSA, even after a strong mandate from November’s loya jirga, observers assumed that he was trying to score political points and safeguard his post-election future by appearing hard on a foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. Karzai additionally stated that he felt that the BSA should be a matter reserved for his successor.
According to the Times report, the Taliban approached Karzai in November, roughly around the same time his public disposition towards the U.S. went rather sour. For the Taliban, luring Karzai – long a believer in a negotiated peace between the central government and the Taliban – meant frustrating the U.S. by means of delaying the BSA. The Times writes that “Karzai seemed to jump at what he believed was a chance to achieve what the Americans were unwilling or unable to do, and reach a deal to end the conflict.”
Ultimately, the detour appears to have been very costly for Karzai and for Afghanistan’s overall security. The backchannel appears to mostly have been a wild goose chase and has borne little real progress on leading Afghanistan to a sustainable peace. Additionally, since October, Karzai’s intransigence on the BSA has strained already-thin public support for a continued U.S. presence in the country post-2014. The Pentagon recently recommended to the White House that should it find itself unable to station at least 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, it should consider a contingency where no American troops remain in the country following the general drawdown this year.
With just two months left in office, the backchannel appears to have been a final attempt by a desperate Karzai to resuscitate moribund peace talks. Instead, the Taliban managed to cast doubt on the entire security situation in Afghanistan next year. In the process, Karzai, the Afghan people, and the United States all grew increasingly frustrated. This issue will likely become a major one for Afghanistan’s eleven presidential candidates, who began campaigning on Sunday. In general, several of the more technocratic candidates are more pro-Western than Karzai (definitely so compared to Karzai over the past four months).
Now that the cat’s out of the bag, Karzai has two options facing him in his final days in office: he could acquiesce and sign the BSA, ending a headache for the United States and the region, and meeting the demands of the Afghan people, or he could twist the narrative and accuse the U.S. of undermining what was surely a promising peace process with the Taliban.