Karzai Gambles with the Taliban
Just when you thought Afghan President Hamid Karzai couldn’t distance himself further from the US and the West, which have propped him up for over a decade, he surprises you. The exact reasons for Karzai’s drift from the West remain murky but one thing is clear: his anti-U.S. rhetoric may sometimes echo the Taliban but it won’t put him in their good graces.
Late last week, Karzai delivered a new surprise by demanding that the U.S. broker meaningful negotiations with the Taliban before he would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), allowing authorizing American forces to stay in Afghanistan after 2014. Not long after that demand was issued, the New York Times exposed Karzai’s use of fraudulent photos that first appeared on a Taliban website, in a government distributed pamphlet blaming the U.S. for inflicting civilian casualties in a recent airstrike in Afghanistan’s Parwan province.
"If the US is not willing to accept our conditions, they can leave anytime and we will continue our lives," Karzai said at a press conference on Jan. 25. “Our main condition is the practical start of a peace process, [which] would mean that no foreigners can benefit from the continuation of war."
Karzai’s demand for negotiations with the Taliban is only the latest in a string of ultimatums that he has issued as pre-conditions for signing the BSA.
Obama administration officials wanted the BSA signed by the end of last year, but Karzai has balked. First and foremost, he has demanded that the US end the controversial “night raids” against the Taliban, claiming that an inordinate number of civilians have been killed. Those same raids, often conducted in partnership with Afghan security forces, have been effective in putting a dent in the Taliban’s leadership cadre and operational capabilities.
But even the most ardent supporters of negotiations with the Taliban recognize that the so-called peace process is in shambles.
Negotiations with the Taliban have never meaningfully proceeded beyond talks about talks. Before dialogues could proceed, the Taliban demanded that the U.S. free five senior al Qaeda-linked commanders from Guantanamo – a non-starter for the U.S. side. The Taliban have refused to denounce al Qaeda, and the US has stopped asking the group to do so.
The Taliban have manipulated the peace negotiations process from the very beginning, sensing that the US and its allies are eager to withdraw the bulk of forces from Afghanistan at any cost. The Taliban have used negotiations, not as a way to reach a resolution, but as a means to legitimize the group in the international community, and extract concessions like the release of its leaders from prisons.
The same day that Karzai demanded the US initiate negotiations with the Taliban, The New York Times published its article showing that Karzai’s office had recycled Taliban propaganda in material it distributed condemning the U.S. for inflicting civilian casualties. The report was based on an investigation by an Afghan senator who in the past has called for jihad against the US. The senator, Abdul Satar Khawasi, poached several images from propaganda released on the Taliban’s website, Voice of Jihad. Some of the images, which purported to show civilian casualties from the January 15th airstrike in Parwan, are years old.
Such antics from Karzai aren’t unusual but they have grown more bold and more frequent in recent years. In the past, Karzai has called the Taliban his “brothers” and been openly critical of the US. Recently, he has, over the objections of the US, ordered the release of scores of Taliban commanders and fighters who are directly linked to killing Coalition and Afghan security personnel.
The escalating brazenness off Karzai’s anti-American rhetoric is indicative of the deterioration of US-Afghan relations since President Obama took office. US officials have leaked stories that Karzai is a drug addict and drug lord, his family is in bed with the Taliban, he is in the pay of the Iranian government and the CIA, and he has rigged elections. It is well known that top US officials, including Richard Holbrooke, were active in campaigning against Karzai in the 2009 presidential election.
Karzai has responded to such public slights by lashing out at the US and refusing to cooperate with Western-backed initiatives even when such positions, have come at the expense of the future of his country and put him in opposition to other Afghan leaders.
The exact reasons for Karzai’s erratic behavior remain unknown. Perhaps he hopes to ingratiate himself with the Taliban as US and Western influence wanes. Maybe he is holding out on signing the BSA and criticizing the US as part of an effort to extract the best possible deal for himself, Afghanistan, or both.
Regardless of his motivations, Karzai is playing a dangerous game.
If Karzai thinks his drift towards the Taliban will buy him forgiveness, he is sorely mistaken. If the US does exercise the “zero option,” the full withdrawal of forces by the end of 2014, or leaves a token force unable to turn the tide against what many believe will be a resurgent Taliban capable of regaining control of large areas of Afghanistan, his most recent attempts to further negotiations with the Taliban won't save him.
Since assuming the presidency in 2004, Karzai has been the face of what the Taliban have derisively described as the “puppet” regime that serves the interests of the “Crusaders” and occupiers. No matter how much Karzai attempts to ingratiate himself with the Taliban, he would be first on the chopping block if he chose to remain in country.