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Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the Loya Jirga, a gathering of Afghan leaders, on Nov. 24, 2013, when the group endorsed a proposed security agreement with the U.S. to keep a military training and assistance force in Afghanistan past the end of 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the Loya Jirga, a gathering of Afghan leaders, on Nov. 24, 2013, when the group endorsed a proposed security agreement with the U.S. to keep a military training and assistance force in Afghanistan past the end of 2014. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has never been shy about picking fights with the United States, but in his latest game of political chicken, he has inadvertently taken on many of his Afghan allies, and the backlash has been swift. It’s also left many wondering what exactly he is trying to achieve.

Following a resounding message of support for a new security agreement with the United States from Karzai’s own hand-picked national council of Afghan leaders, a Loya Jirga, which included nearly every influential politician and businessman in the country, the mercurial president stunned just about everyone by saying the pact should not be signed until after Afghanistan’s presidential election in April. Then he added his own conditions, including an immediate ban on foreign troops entering Afghan homes, the release to Afghan custody of all Afghans in Guantanamo prison, and a need for peace in the war-wracked country before an agreement.

This approach not only incensed Washington, but also brought a flurry of criticism from Afghan elites, who say Karzai is playing Russian roulette with the country’s future to secure his own influence after his presidential term ends in April.

“He’s trying to build up his position in Afghanistan for after his presidency, but he’s not considering that if he doesn’t sign the bilateral security agreement, the country could return to chaos,” said Shahla Farid, a political analyst and professor of political science at Kabul University. “The president needs to forget about his own political gain for the sake of the country.”

Karzai officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Without the agreement, which outlines the parameters of a future American military presence and includes protections for U.S. troops against prosecution in Afghan courts, Washington will pull all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and all other allied nations are likely to follow.

In the absence of a residual international military presence, expected to be somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 troops, and the intelligence and air power that it would bring, many fear the nascent Afghan security forces will have trouble defending their country against a still-entrenched insurgency.

The White House issued a stern rebuke after a visit this week by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, saying that if Karzai sticks to his timeline it will not leave the U.S. enough time to plan for troop deployments and they would have to scuttle the agreement.

Karzai has said he will sign the agreement if two demands are met, but one in particular seems impossible: Karzai said there must be peace in Afghanistan — or at least “the beginning of a realistic peace process,” as he elaborated in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — before the agreement is signed. But with peace talks with the Taliban long stalled, there seems to be zero chance of achieving that in the near term. That demand has left a lot of experts scratching their heads.

“Everyone wants peace and stability in the country, but that can’t be achieved in a few weeks, as he is asking,” said Jaffar Kohistani, an independent Afghan political analyst.

Since the Loya Jirga overwhelmingly endorsed the security pact — and urged Karzai to sign it by the end of the month — the president has run in the opposite direction. The Loya Jirga was packed with Karzai allies, leading some to wonder if he badly misread the mood of the nation.

“He asked the Loya Jirga to decide the issue because Karzai thought the Loya Jirga might not agree with the bilateral security agreement,” Kohistani said. “When he saw everything turned out differently, he felt pressure to react.”

Even Rice’s visit did nothing to dissuade Karzai from taking an increasingly hard line.

Loya Jirga delegates, including many leading figures in Afghan politics, have heavily criticized Karzai, pointing to his promise to respect the decision of the council as the will of the Afghan people.

Moeen Marastial, a member of the Afghan parliament from Kunduz province and a former Karzai aide, also sees cementing post-presidential power as Karzai’s goal. A committee chairman at the Loya Jirga, Marastial says Karzai is going against his own people now and also endangering international aid for the country with his brinksmanship.

“President Karzai cannot deny (the jirga’s decision),” he said. “He doesn’t have the right to ignore the wishes of the Afghan people.”

Ishaq Poya, a tribal leader from Bamiyan province, who also participated in the Loya Jirga, thinks Karzai is playing hardball to get U.S. political help.

“I think (Karzai) wants the American president to give him a guarantee that they will support Karzai’s favored candidate” in the upcoming presidential election, he said. “We hope that Karzai will not ruin the achievements of the past 12 years. And if the security agreement is not signed, there will be a threat to all of the democratic achievements as well as human rights and infrastructure achievements. If the security agreement is not signed, we will go back to 2001” — before the U.S. invasion that ousted Taliban rule.

But Karzai might also be stung by what he sees as American interference, Kate Clark, an analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network said.

“From Karzai’s point of view, he sees U.S. forces killing Afghan civilians and entering their homes and believes they tried to interfere in the last presidential election and are blocking the ‘peace process.’ So if he gives them the BSA, what checks will there be on U.S. behavior?”

Part of the blame for Karzai’s intransigence may fall on Americans and their kid gloves approach to the president over the years, some analysts say.

“To be frank, he’s never found an American red line before,” Clark said. “There’s been bad times and bad disputes, but they’ve always come back with money and troops.”

In the weeks leading up to the Loya Jirga, it seemed a fait accompli that the security agreement would be signed in some form, but now many experts are throwing up their hands when asked what Karzai’s endgame might be.

“I’m finding it hard to conceive of how President Karzai can back down and sign the (security agreement) right now, particularly in the timeline the Americans have given him,” Clark said. “He was given the perfect political cover to sign it by the Loya Jirga and he didn’t take it.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

druzin.heath@stripes.com Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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