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Karzai lobs new curveball on U.S.-Afghan security agreement

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in speech, tepidly endorses U.S. security deal, then says his successor, not he, should sign it.

November 21, 2013|By David Zucchino
  • A barbershop in Kabul carries the speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. His comments left the U.S. wondering whether he was grandstanding or angling for more concessions in the nations' security agreement.
A barbershop in Kabul carries the speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — He expressed outrage, sarcasm and black humor. He cast himself as a lonely voice defending his country's pride and sovereignty against American arrogance.

After a frantic week of last-minute negotiations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai delivered a tepid endorsement Thursday of a proposed 10-year security pact with the United States in a rambling speech to an Afghan tribal gathering. But he then surprised attendees — and the world — by saying Afghanistan might not sign the accord until next spring.

Karzai told the 2,700 Afghan delegates to the assembly, known as a loya jirga, that the agreement was vital to Afghanistan's future security. But he complained bitterly about his dysfunctional relationship with the United States and suggested that his successor be the one to sign the deal after elections in April.

It was a typically mercurial twist by a leader known for maximizing his leverage and keeping himself at the center of events. U.S. officials, who had announced agreement on a draft text just hours before Karzai's speech, must now gauge whether he was grandstanding or angling for more concessions.

The U.S. expected a much quicker resolution. Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced Wednesday that the nations had agreed to the text of the pact. A letter from President Obama delivered to Karzai just before the speech told the Afghan president he sought to have the pact concluded promptly.

Karzai's performance also bewildered Afghans, who have been waiting for months, debating whether to flee with their life savings or to stay once the assurance of another decade of American military and financial support was guaranteed. U.S. aid spurs jobs, commerce, investment and, most important, confidence in Afghanistan's capacity as a functioning state.

Afghan military commanders, who can't keep their U.S.-supplied Humvees running even with U.S. trainers at their elbow, acknowledge that their security forces cannot hold off an entrenched insurgency without American trainers and cash for paychecks, weapons and supplies.

Karzai's move forced them all to pause, if not recalculate.

"My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them and they don't trust me," Karzai told the delegates, most of them white-bearded elders in ornate turbans, at the close of his 75-minute address.

"I have fought with them the last 10 years, and they have made propaganda against me," an apparent reference to depictions of Karzai by some American officials as corrupt, cunning and unreliable.

Karzai's comments set off a blast of Twitter posts by Afghans even before he had finished speaking. The address was broadcast live, with people gathered around television sets at home and in barber shops during a six-day loya jirga holiday declared by Karzai.

Karzai did not seem inclined to temper his criticism, even with U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top commander here, in the audience.

The agreement would create a much smaller U.S. force, primarily for training and counter-terrorism, after combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014. But it commits the United States to another decade of expensive support after the longest war in U.S. history, a brutal 12-year campaign that has cost more than 2,200 American lives, countless wounded and psychologically damaged veterans, and $96.5 billion in reconstruction aid.

Karzai's move creates logistical challenges for the Pentagon, which is desperate to begin planning for future deployments while closing bases and shipping home vehicles, gear and equipment as combat troops leave. Like many Afghans, U.S. commanders have been largely stuck in neutral while awaiting confirmation that the U.S. military commitment will indeed continue into 2015.

The loya jirga is stacked with delegates appointed by or loyal to Karzai. Some Afghan politicians and analysts say Karzai is using the gathering for political cover. A final deal must also be approved by Afghanistan's parliament, which is viewed as likely to endorse it.

U.S. officials have asked Karzai's office for clarification of his remarks because it was unclear whether the possible delay referred to signing the agreement before it is sent to the parliament, or a final presidential signature that enters the agreement into law.

Despite Karzai's brinkmanship during negotiations, the deal he presented to the loya jirga did not contain all concessions he had sought. And even with a long delay, Karzai is taking a political risk. He is reviled by the Taliban as an American and CIA "stooge." Many Afghans believe he is too close to the United States and too eager to accept U.S. cash and troops.

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