America is in its year-end holiday mode, while a potentially explosive situation is building up in faraway Afghanistan. President Barack Obama is on a fortnight-long family vacation in Hawaii. Holidaying elsewhere are his Secretary of State John Kerry and some other big guns of his administration. Clearly, one of their top priorities on return to Washington will be to bring round Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who continues to cock a snook at the American establishment, this time over sealing the long-pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Without that pact, the United States will be left with the “zero option” of having to withdraw all its troops by the end of 2014 — a grim foreboding for Afghanistan itself, India and the region.
The United States, for its part, may do well to avoid its proclivity for tough talk and be a little more persuasive in its dealings with Mr Karzai at this critical juncture of Afghan transition. The Obama administration had set December 31 as the deadline for Mr Karzai to sign the security pact that would ensure a limited American presence beyond 2014 in a non-combat role, largely for training of and assistance for Afghan forces in counter-terrorism operations. But the deadline approach is just not washing with Mr Karzai, who has brushed aside American warnings of complete withdrawal of its forces by the end of 2014 and set his own conditions in a clear bid for an Afghan leverage on the US forces.
A full month has passed since US National Security Advisor Susan Rice visited Kabul to force Mr Karzai’s hand, but returned empty-handed. The Afghan leader has taken the stand that the BSA should be signed not by him, but his successor to be chosen in the presidential election, slated for April 2014. Much to the surprise of Americans, Mr Karzai opted to disregard the overwhelming view of the Loya Jirga conference of tribal and regional leaders that he should sign the security pact. That apart, he has added new conditions that include the US halting raids on Afghan homes, launching peace talks with the Taliban and releasing 20 Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Although President Obama has already sent him a letter affirming respect for “Afghan sovereignty” and promising to eschew military raids on Afghan homes except under “extraordinary circumstances” involving danger to American nationals, Mr Karzai is apparently far from convinced. So he is striving for a leverage before any signing on the dotted line. Washington has sought to make it clear that any delay in concluding the pact would leave it with no option but to pull out all troops by the end of 2014, arguing that the United States and NATO would not have enough time to work out alternative plans.
In the present scheme of things, most of the 75,000 US-led NATO troops would be pulled out at the end of 2014. The Obama administration says that if Mr Karzai signs the BSA, about 8,000 American troops would continue to stay in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal deadline. Peeved at his dithering, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said, “We believe it’s untenable and impractical to wait until January to have this thing concluded. We want it closed. The American government wants it. The Afghan people want it, so Karzai needs to sign.” That was at the time of Rice’s unsuccessful Kabul mission. A month later, Mr Karzai has still not changed his mind on the issue,leaving the Americans bemused and unsure what to do, except for the talk of a complete pullout, with all its attendant consequences.
Questions have been raised about Mr Karzai’s motivations in holding out on the BSA. Some say the Afghan leader, after 12 years at the helm, is worried about his legacy and possible criticism that he has sold out Afghan interests to the Americans. Pro-Taliban elements have for long accused him of being a US puppet.
Mr Karzai could avert accusations of the kind by simply leaving the BSA issue to his successor. The outcome of the ensuing election itself is a big unknown. While Mr Karzai cannot contest the election for a third term under the Afghan law, it is a crowded field with 11 candidates, including former Foreign Ministers Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and the president’s own brother, Qayum Karzai.
The trust deficit between Mr Karzai and the United States has been widening over a long period. So much so that during his New Delhi visit a fortnight ago, he told reporters that he does not trust the Americans any longer, accusing them of saying one thing and doing quite another on Afghan matters. “I don’t trust them,” he reportedly commented, with specific reference to President Obama’s letter to him last month, assuring that US forces would respect the safety of Afghans in their homes — one of the conditions he has set for signing the BSA.
“When Mr Obama writes to me that he will respect homes, they should prove it,” he said, demanding that the US issue orders to stop the drone strikes and raids of Afghan homes. As he put it, “We have homes. We have families. We have mothers. We have children. And we have sensitivities that have to be respected.”
Seen in Washington as a mercurial leader, Mr Karzai believes that the American threat of total pullout in the absence of immediate conclusion of BSA is not real. As he asserted during his New Delhi visit, “I don’t think the Americans are thinking seriously of the zero option. It’s a brinkmanship that they play with us.” On the contrary, top US lawmakers have accused Mr Karzai of resorting to brinkmanship. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez held forth at a recent hearing, “This brinksmanship is unwarranted and, frankly, insulting to the sacrifices made by the United States military and taxpayers, and is not in Afghanistan’s best interest.”
The Obama administration has also warned not so subtly that US aid could dry up in the absence of the BSA for continued military presence to ensure that the gains against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not frittered away. “My judgment is no troops, no aid, or almost no aid. The political support for the aid comes from the military presence,” commented James Dobbins, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, during a Congressional hearing. Not that Mr Karzai is unaware of the consequences, including the substantial financial bounty, if the Americans were to pull the plug in a huff. “The zero option will have consequences for us, no doubt. We will be short of resources. Our military and police will suffer,” he concedes. Afghanistan, after all, has been receiving more than $8 billion in annual funds for Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces and development assistance.
Despite all this posturing on both sides, analysts believe that Washington would opt to go easy on its December 31 deadline. In a seeming recognition that Mr Karzai is just unwilling to accept a US-imposed timeline for the security pact, no less a person than special envoy Dobbins was recently quoted as saying, “We haven’t at this point set a day beyond which we’re no longer prepared to wait.” As another Obama administration official candidly admitted to The New York Times this week, “I don’t know if I would call it bluffing. But it looks like that’s what we were doing, and now it looks like Karzai is calling us out.”
The writer is Washington correspondent of The Pioneer, a leading newspaper of India.