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A Method to Karzai’s Madness?

Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which has been laboriously negotiated with the Obama administration, is maddening–but it does come with a silver lining: Karzai’s foot-dragging is showing that there is widespread popular support for a continuing American troop presence and of course for the money that comes with it. There was a telling vignette at the loya jirga that Karzai called to endorse the agreement–and whose verdict he is so far ignoring. As Najib Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst, notes:

Almost 40 minutes into Karzai’s speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of “Death to slaves of Pakistan” and “Death to slaves of Iran” suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

How often do you hear those who oppose a U.S. military presence in their country being denounced as traitors? Especially in a Muslim country? Yet that is what is now happening in Afghanistan where everyone, it seems, except for the Taliban, is urging Karzai to get on with it and sign an agreement that will enable the government’s survival past 2014.

Why isn’t Karzai complying so far? Afghanistan, like other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, is notorious for its conspiracy theories and Sharifi has a good one to explain Karzai’s actions:

By holding off on signing the agreement, he is generating further domestic support for the pact. In other words, he is effectively building public pressure against himself. Why? Because there is a historical stigma attached to any agreement that includes the establishment of foreign military bases in the country. While Afghans currently support the creation of these bases, with the country’s uncertain political future, Karzai is worried about his legacy and he does not want to be seen as the person who facilitated this development if the domestic sentiment changes. By increasing the public pressure, he is creating an environment that would allow him to sign the BSA, while claiming that he had no other choice but to yield to the public demand.

Far be it from me to predict or explain Karzai’s actions, but this actually seems like a compelling theory. I just hope that Sharifi is right that Karzai will soon end the charade and sign the BSA, because if he doesn’t the Obama administration can use that as an excuse to walk away, leaving Afghanistan–and U.S. interests in the region–in the lurch.



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