Afghanistan`s Karzai stands alone in high-stakes game with US
Kabul: President Hamid Karzai`s stubborn refusal to sign a pact that would keep thousands of US troops in Afghanistan after 2014 is a high-risk gamble that Washington will give in to his demands, one that has left him isolated as the clock runs down on his presidency.
Diplomats said he may have overplayed his hand, raising the risk of a complete US withdrawal from a country where Western troops have fought Taliban militants for the past 12 years. It also risks a backlash at home by critics who believe Karzai is playing a dangerous game with Afghanistan`s future security.
If the bilateral pact is not signed, Western aid running to billions of dollars will be in serious jeopardy, and confidence in the fragile economy could collapse amid fears the country will slip back into ethnic fighting or civil war.
"I don`t know if he fully realises the risks," said US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the US-led coalition`s top commander.
Dunford told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that Karzai`s failure to quickly sign the agreement could not only weaken the Afghan economy, but embolden powerful neighbours and lead to the collapse of the country`s security forces.
"The uncertainty and the lack of confidence about the post-2014 environment has had an adverse effect on the people in some very real ways, whether it be the flight of young people who try to leave the country, whether it be plunging real-estate prices, the rate of the Afghani" currency, Dunford said.
Afghanistan could not survive without international commitments made at the Chicago NATO summit last year, he said.
"Right now, I don`t see Afghanistan being able to sustain the Afghan security forces without the Chicago commitments," Dunford said, adding he believed Karzai would eventually sign the pact.
There was much dismay in Kabul this week after Karzai over-rode the near-unanimous decision of an assembly of nearly 3,000 Afghan tribal elders to back the agreement and introduced new conditions.
"What was the point of calling the Jirga (assembly) if Karzai wants to continue haggling with the United States?" said Haji Mursaleen, a prominent elder who travelled from the eastern province of Kunar to attend the assembly.
Even Qayum Karzai, who is running in next April`s election to succeed his younger brother - while being careful not to criticize the president - said this week it was in Afghanistan`s "vital interest" to get the pact signed.
Hamid Karzai has repeatedly crossed swords with Washington since he became president in 2001, and - anxious about his legacy - he may want to show he is no push-over for the Americans before the elections bring his second and final term to an end.
Underlining Karzai`s distrust of Washington, Aimal Faizi, his urbane spokesman, said in Kabul`s fortress-like presidential palace: "He has a very suspicious mind because of all the wrongdoings of the US and NATO of the past."
Diplomats and politicians say Karzai is likely to hold out as long as he can because, once the deal is signed, he will lose bargaining power and limp to the end of his term a lame duck.
"He is a very cunning person and he is in love with his power, more than (Muammar) Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein," said one senior Afghan politician, referring to the defeated leaders of Libya and Iraq.
"He has been going against the will of the people all this time ... He does not want to give away his power."
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