US again driven to distraction by Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

What is the United States to do about Afghan President Hamid Karzai?

Eye rolls are the usual response when Karzai's name comes up in official circles in Washington — where the Afghan leader was once feted as a silk robed savior but is now mocked as an erratic Machiavelli.

In his latest mercurial move, Karzai is refusing to sign a painstakingly negotiated bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the United States, setting rules for American soldiers in a post-2014, post-combat force that would train Afghan troops and counter terrorism.

Washington warns that unless Karzai relents before the end of the year, there will be no option but to plan a full US exit that would put Afghanistan at risk of a Taliban resurgence and choke off billions of dollars of military aid.

Karzai, who openly mistrusts Washington, says it should be up to the next president to sign the BSA. But since the coming election is in April — US military planners say they would not have time to prepare a post-2014 force that could stretch to 15,000 troops.

Karzai has nursed a long grudge against Barack Obama's White House, perhaps unhappy that his frequent contact with ex-president George W. Bush was not replicated by his successor.

He has also railed against US military tactics, civilian deaths and drone strikes through the 12-year war.

But patience for Karzai in Washington, always endangered, is almost extinct.

Obama sent National Security Advisor Susan Rice to read the riot act to Karzai last week — but she returned only with new conditions — including a demand for no operations by foreign troops in residential areas.

Karzai is now accusing the United States of halting fuel and supplies to Afghan troops to force his hand — a charge NATO denies.

Many observers here believe that Karzai is motivated by a desire to exercise his own political leverage and to preserve his own power in the run-up to elections.

Washington is meanwhile loathe to let the BSA, already endorsed by a loya jirga of Afghan tribal elders, become an election issue.

But few observers are surprised that best laid plans are once more being disrupted by Karzai and former officials who have dealt with him are betraying frustration that the administration is struggling to keep private.

"President Karzai should go ahead and sign the agreement," said Tom Donilon, who until August was Obama's National Security Advisor told ABC News, branding the Afghan leader's antics as "reckless."

Former CIA Chief and National Security Agency boss Michael Hayden told Fox News Sunday that Karzai's gambit was a "temper tantrum" while warning that tough US rhetoric would not work.

Officials in the White House and the Pentagon are clear about what further delays could mean.

"We'd like to see the BSA signed as soon as possible — certainly by the end of this year," said Colonel Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

"If it's not signed very quickly, we will be forced to begin planning for an Afghanistan that has no US presence after 2014," said Warren.

Such an outcome would be unpalatable for Washington; it would risk a collapse of still fragile Afghan forces; it could open the door for a resurgence of the Taliban, and extremist forces like Al-Qaeda which the war was launched in 2001 to quell.

A total withdrawal would also leave Obama with the question of whether he squandered the sacrifice of nearly 2,300 US troops in Afghanistan. It could also condemn the country to the same post-US torment as Iraq.

But Obama is also adamant that there will be no troops left in Afghanistan if they are not offered the legal protections that the BSA provides — and there remains a suspicion that some officials would welcome the chance to wash their hands of Afghanistan.

A delay in the US-Afghan BSA is also problematic for US NATO partners who must conclude their own status of forces agreements with Karzai.

Many analysts believe that Karzai will not ultimately allow his nation to be left alone to its fate and believe he will sign in the end.

One option may be just to wait Karzai out, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"The better part of wisdom here is just to relax, time will make it a lot easier," O'Hanlon said, arguing that the true answer to the conundrum was to stress the long-term interests of the Afghan people and not Karzai's personal pique.

Caroline Wadhams, of the Center for American Progress, just back from Afghanistan, suggested Karzai had miscalculated his nation's strategic importance to Washington — and convinced himself that Obama would make further concessions because Washington is desperate to stay.

"It is not clear what he wants. I don't know how you negotiate with him," she said, adding that Washington needed to convince Karzai, "this is it, we are not doing this any more."