~~~ Not ’til next year…
by Azam Ahmed
New York Times
November 21, 2013
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai stood before thousands of Afghan leaders on Thursday in a watershed moment for his tumultuous rule. Having just come to an agreement with American leaders on a security deal that would commit the two countries to a lasting military alliance, and which would surely define his legacy, he convened the assembly that would decide the deal’s fate.
And then, in what has become a signature move, he hit the brakes.
After a speech in which he bluntly described his relationship with the United States as one of mutual distrust, he told the gathering, known as a loya jirga, that even if it approved the deal, he would wait until after the April presidential elections to sign it.
The declaration, which surprised both American and Afghan officials, instantly put at risk an American deadline to have an agreement signed this year. And it served notice that even with his leadership set to expire next year, Mr. Karzai intended for the United States to continue working through him at every turn until then.
The play is not without danger for Mr. Karzai. As American officials’ exasperation with him has intensified, they have increasingly noted the possibility that no American troops — and by extension, no international funding — would be left in Afghanistan after 2014.
They did so again on Thursday. In a White House background briefing, administration officials said they were seeking a clarification of Mr. Karzai’s intent, and suggested that leaving the deal’s completion until next spring would make it impossible to keep any American forces there.
The officials also emphasized that Mr. Karzai had agreed to a one-year timetable when the two countries began negotiating the security agreement last November.
Mr. Karzai’s brinkmanship is also creating anxiety within his own government. The military and police establishments, in particular, have urgently pushed to finalize the deal because it would ensure training and heavy international funding for the Afghan security forces.
Still, officials noted on Thursday that there was nothing to keep Mr. Karzai from changing his mind again if the loya jirga were to approve the security agreement by its close on Sunday. (Originally called for three days, the meeting has since been stretched to four, with the option to go even longer if needed, Afghan officials said.)
And if anything, Mr. Karzai’s statements seemed of a piece with a series of negotiation moves that appeared calculated to squeeze every last American concession out of the process — though each usually ended in Afghan compliance.
Earlier this month, the issue of American soldiers being granted immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts was highlighted by Afghan officials as a potential deal-breaker, until it was not. On Sunday, the Afghans drew a line in the sand about United States forces searching Afghan homes, a demand that also largely fell by the wayside.
And a public statement on Tuesday from a Karzai spokesman saying that the Americans were prepared to essentially apologize for past mistakes during the war turned into an embarrassment for the Karzai administration when two senior administration officials denied there was an apology in the works.
Indeed, there was a certain familiarity in much of Mr. Karzai’s speech on Thursday, delivered to the gathering in a tent at the Polytechnical University of Kabul. While he said he approved the security agreement, he made a point of lashing out at his American allies repeatedly during the hourlong appearance.
“There’s a mistrust between me and the Americans,” he said. “They don’t trust me, and I don’t trust them. I have always criticized them, and they have always propagated negative things behind my back.”
Mr. Karzai called on an assortment of rhetorical devices he has employed over the past decade. He was at times humorous, at times outraged, at times personal and emotional.
It mattered little on Thursday that the coalition commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., and the American ambassador, James B. Cunningham, attended the loya jirga. Mr. Karzai offered no quarter to the Americans during his speech, even as he made clear his desire to see the bilateral security agreement signed, a move that would secure an American troop presence through 2024 and pave the way for billions of dollars in financial assistance.
“Those who oppose this security agreement shouldn’t be labeled as Pakistani or Iranian agents,” Mr. Karzai said, referring to a common Afghan belief that Afghanistan’s neighbors want to see the country weak and unstable. “There are people who are pro-B.S.A., but we can’t call them American agents. I am pro-B.S.A., but I have my preconditions.”
“We want the Americans to respect our sovereignty and laws and be an honest partner,” he said.
He then added, “And bring a lot of money,” prompting a wave of laughter in the crowd.
At times, his speech sounded like a defense of his tenure: He made the Americans wait to sign the agreement. He played hardball on crucial issues. He refused to sign any agreement without putting it to the Afghan people, as represented by the loya jirga, which is composed of 2,500 influential leaders selected by the government.
Still, a prevalent view of the assembly was that it had been called, essentially, to grant the leader political cover for the approval of the security agreement. Mr. Karzai, after all, had final approval over the delegate list.
Though his administration made concessions, Mr. Karzai held up a letter from President Obama as evidence of America’s respect and read passages that expressed sympathy with Afghan concerns about “the sensitive issue of the safety and privacy of people in their own homes.”
The letter, a copy of which was posted on the Afghan president’s website, also pledged that “U.S. forces shall not enter Afghan homes for the purposes of military operations, except under extraordinary circumstances involving urgent risk to life and limb of U.S. nationals.”
During his speech, a woman in the audience heckled Mr. Karzai about foreign raids on Afghan homes, a breach of privacy seen as deeply offensive here. Specifically, she pressed him about the concession that foreign raids would be permitted only in “extraordinary circumstances.”
“All the night raids can be categorized as exceptional cases,” she yelled, carrying on for more than a minute before she was ushered from the room.
“This sister has left every jirga,” Mr. Karzai said, referring to her claim that she had been invited to the last two nationwide jirgas. “I know that, but her views should be respected.”
Beneath the levity and criticism, however, Mr. Karzai exudes genuine bitterness over how the American campaign has turned out here. He has seen the hope of many Afghans after the fall of the Taliban fade into cynicism, and has watched yet another generation schooled in the vernacular of war.
As he has in the past, Mr. Karzai mentioned his son during the speech. He recalled coming home after the Ministry of Defense was attacked one night and being greeted by his toddler.
“My son was only 3 years old when he learned the words ‘Ministry of Defense,’ ” he told the gathering, a rare glimpse of family life in a very guarded society. “Can you show me another 3-year-old who knows the words ‘Ministry of Defense?’ ”
Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, his website: