Of Pride and Power

How dramatically a relationship can change.

In December 2001, following the fall of the Taliban, representatives of the major Afghan ethnic groups met with U.S. officials in Bonn, Germany, to plan a new future for Afghanistan. A respected Afghani tribal leader named Hamid Karzai was chosen to serve a six-month term as Chair of the Transitional Administration.

Fluent in English as well as several other languages, Karzai — a former CIA contractor who had worked closely with the Americans to oust the Taliban — seemed like a dependable, even admirable choice.

When tribal elders and regional leaders gathered in what is known as a “loya jirga” (grand council) in 2002 to pick an interim president, Karzai got the nod. Two years later, the Afghani people elected Karzai to a full five-year term.

With the passage of time, the relationship between Karzai and the United States began to deteriorate, and by the time the 2009 presidential elections came around, Karzai was no longer Washington’s favorite. Those elections were marred by fraud, mostly committed by Karzai’s supporters. When his opponent pulled out of a run-off, Karzai held on to his seat by default.

Meanwhile, his relationship with the White House continued to go downhill.

Barred by law from seeking a third term, Karzai has only a few months left before he is obligated to step down. While Washington is presumably eagerly awaiting an Afghanistan without Karzai at its helm, there are some things that can’t wait for his successor.

On top of that list is the future of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. While most ordinary Americans would be very glad if every last soldier left the country in the very near future, military experts warn that total withdrawal would be a disaster, leaving the country to face a still-potent Taliban insurgency without the foreign military assistance Afghanistan so desperately needs. Total withdrawal would also deny America the military bases it needs in order to be able to launch drone attacks against terror targets in nearby Pakistan.

There are now just 46,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, along with 26,000 from NATO and other allies — compared to almost 150,000 last year. After lengthy and complex negotiations, the Obama administration reached an agreement with Karzai that would allow for up to another 8,000 American troops to stay in his country for the coming years.

The Pentagon insists it needs the security pact in place by the end of December to give planners time to draft deployment schedules and secure funding for post-2014 operations, and Karzai convened a loya jirga to take up this very question. Cognizant of how badly their country needs the American troops, the 2,500 tribal leaders unanimously approved the pact with only minor caveats, and urged that it be signed before the end of the year.

But on Monday — baffling supporters and detractors alike — Karzai announced he has new demands and wasn’t going to sign the agreement after all. Instead, he said it would be up to the next president to deal with the issue.

For the Americans, this prospect is simply untenable. The election of the next Afghan president could stretch well into the summer or fall if a runoff is required. Whoever wins may be as unlikely as Karzai to sign a deal with the U.S. as his first major act in office.

John Podesta, an adviser to the Obama administration on Afghanistan, told NPR, “Karzai has really gone from maddeningly unpredictable to dangerously erratic.” Even Karzai’s own 89-year-old political mentor, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, who chaired the most recent loya jirga, was outspoken in his criticism. “Becoming president made him prideful,” he said of Karzai. “He doesn’t realize how little support there is in America toward Afghanistan; he doesn’t realize how critical this is for the Afghan government,” Mr. Mujadidi said, according to The New York Times. “The Americans are the winners in this game, because what America has to lose is far less than what Afghanistan has to lose.”

Karzai, who is so famed for changing his mind about matters that the mainstream media regularly puts the word “mercurial” before his name, appeared to back off slightly on Wednesday. He softened some of his demands — including one that called for the United States to guarantee free and fair presidential elections on April 5 — but still refused to commit to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement by December 31.

More than 2,000 American soldiers lost their lives while trying to provide freedom and security to the Afghan people. The United States has spent astronomical sums of money it didn’t have on this country. Yet, in an incredible exhibition of chutzpah and ingratitude, Karzai regularly paints America as the wrongdoer, and does all he can to make life difficult for his country’s most devoted ally.

As the Obama administration seeks ways to possibly bypass Karzai and have another senior Afghan official sign this agreement, this sorry saga is once again a reminder of the dangers of pride and power.