IT IS hard to say what is most infuriating about Hamid Karzai: his kleptocratic entourage or his profound ingratitude to the Western soldiers whose blood has kept him in power. But his talent for producing the wrong sort of surprises must also be a strong candidate.
A loya jirga, an assembly of some 2,500 Afghan elders, specially convened by Mr Karzai, has voted unanimously for a security pact that provides a legal basis for 8,000-12,000 American and NATO forces to stay in Afghanistan after 2014, when they cease combat operations. But the Afghan president has suddenly decided to imperil the deal, which had been hammered out over many months, by saying that he would not after all be signing it himself. Although he knows the Americans insist on everything being done and dusted by the end of 2013 (so they can start making plans), he now argues that his successor should be the one to sign it, which means waiting till after April’s presidential election. Susan Rice, America’s national security adviser, ended a bad-tempered visit to Kabul last week by saying that, without a prompt signature by Mr Karzai, preparations would begin for the “zero option”–the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan after 2014.
That would be disastrous for Afghanistan. Under the deal, Americans and their allies will “train, assist and advise” Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), who already take the lead in nearly all actions against Taliban insurgents. The Americans’ presence is critical for the logistics, air support, intelligence and “medevac” they provide and for the continued flow of military and development aid. The bulk of the $US4 billion needed to sustain the ANSF every year will come from American coffers, while other international donors have promised a similar amount for civil programmes.
Without a security agreement all of this is in jeopardy. The last time a superpower withdrew its army and cut off payments to Afghan forces fighting an active insurgency (Russia, in 1992), the country was ripped apart by a destructive civil war. That prospect is enough to terrify most Afghans. The gains of the past decade in terms of education (especially for girls), health care, a vibrant media, new businesses and the emergence of competent young Afghan professionals could be lost.
Why should Mr Karzai risk that? The old rogue may be trying to hang on to influence until he leaves office. Or it may just be accumulated fury with the Americans. He often paints the war as a conflict between America and the Taliban in which Afghan civilians are the victims. He especially hates raids on Afghan homes by foreign forces. He is cross about the way his allies depict him (“They don’t trust me and I don’t trust them”, he told the loya jirga cheerfully). Above all, he reckons that his country matters too much for the Americans to walk away.
Talk to his successors
Mr Karzai is dangerously overplaying his hand. Most Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan has achieved little, and would be only too happy to be shot of the place. But Mr Karzai is right about one thing. It is not in the West’s interests to allow Afghanistan to fall apart and become once more a base for jihadist extremists. Al-Qaeda, holed up in Pakistan’s tribal badlands, is down but not out. Retaining a counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan is too important for it to be thrown away in a fit of pique. As the loya jirga showed, most Afghans want America to stay; so do the two leading candidates in the presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, a former foreign and finance minister respectively. The Americans should start drawing up plans with them and pro-agreement ministers. Mr Karzai will be gone soon.
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