He's done it again. Afghan President
Karzai was on board when the language of the Security and Defense Cooperation Agreement with U.S. negotiators was finalized on Nov. 19. Less than a week later, a gathering of Afghan elders, officials and community leaders (known as a loya jirga) voted unanimously — as Karzai had asked them to do — in favor of signing the deal before the end of the year. But then Karzai abruptly announced he wouldn't sign after all, insisting on new conditions, such as "peace in Afghanistan," and an end to house raids and drone strikes.
U.S. decision-makers should have expected such antics. It is they who have conditioned Karzai to behave this way, by persistently rewarding similar stunts. In Afghanistan as elsewhere, a lack of psychological savvy on the part of U.S. leaders, combined with a perverse tendency to abandon or undervalue their own leverage, are undermining U.S. interests as well as those of populations Washington purports to be helping.
The first sign that Karzai was collecting cards to slip up his sleeve was his decision to convene a loya jirga to vote on the draft agreement with the United States. The deal would authorize the presence and define the role of international forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The Afghan loya jirga, a traditional, consensus-based institution that can provide popular checks on executive power, harks back to the days of the nation's founding in the 18th century and beyond, before formal government structures existed. But today's Afghan Constitution is clear: According to Article 90, the National Assembly is charged with "ratification of international treaties and agreements, or abrogation of membership of Afghanistan in them." There was no call for a loya jirga at all.
But a National Assembly vote would have been binding, while a loya jirga only submits recommendations. Stuffed with delegates selected by Karzai and his aides, debating dozens of policy issues embedded within the text of the draft agreement, it was bound to generate a variety of cards Karzai could subsequently play.
As the final interpreter of the resulting contradictory recommendations, Karzai is the sole interlocutor, whose whim determines the monumental — perhaps existential — issue of an ongoing international security presence in Afghanistan, and the millions of dollars in international aid likely to be linked to that presence.
And that's just where Karzai likes to be: alone in the driver's seat. For years he has successfully reduced the entire U.S. partnership with his country to an often emotionally fraught personal relationship between a succession of U.S. officials and him.
Yet Obama officials also proved incapable of making that change. They would scold Karzai but neglect to think through his likely countermoves and how best to block them, or to marshal concrete actions to back up the tough verbiage.
In 2009, Karzai brazenly stole a presidential election that was largely paid for and secured by the United States, counterfeiting at least one-third of his ballots. Then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman
In March 2010, President Obama, on a surprise visit to Kabul, addressed the corrosive corruption of the Afghan government, which many saw as fueling the
The U.S. response? Roll out the red carpet for an unctuous mend-the-fences state visit to Washington.
Moreover, throughout the ups and downs, the
Still, U.S. policy does tend to be binary: all on or all off. We do, until we don't. A scan of reader reactions to newspaper coverage of the latest dust-up reveals near-unanimity in favor of an immediate, total withdrawal. Karzai is gambling the future of Afghanistan and its people — not that he especially cares.
For their part, now that the U.S. aims to increase its reliance on diplomacy rather than brute force abroad, U.S. diplomats and civilian officials might do well to enroll in some negotiation workshops. A few