Karzai`s November surprise: Smart political move or bad gamble

Afghan President Hamid Karzai`s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States just yet while attaching new conditions is a risky gamble. It rests on the belief that the Americans will not walk away.

ANI| Updated: Nov 28, 2013, 12:55 PM IST

Washington: Afghan President Hamid Karzai`s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States just yet while attaching new conditions is a risky gamble. It rests on the belief that the Americans will not walk away.

But the Obama Administration has threatened just that by raising the spectre of the "zero option" once again, which could evolve from an American negotiating ploy into stark reality. Patience for Karzai is already thin and he has few supporters in Washington.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice rushed to Kabul on Sunday to deliver a tough message but what she got were new demands in addition to the three Karzai had already listed during last week`s assembly of Afghan elders called the Loya Jirga.

Incidentally, the 2,500 Afghan women and men urged Karzai to sign the BSA. Karzai wants the US to release 17 Afghans being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to be able to launch a peace process with the Taliban.

Rice told Karzai that US troops will completely withdraw in 2014 and international aid estimated at nearly $8 billion to support the government and the Afghan army committed in Chicago and Tokyo will not be delivered.

The dangerous brinkmanship - a Karzai hallmark - could backfire just as easily as it could win him more concessions and a better place in history. Should this edge-of-the-seat political theatre turn into a fiasco, Afghanistan and the wider region would be the bigger losers.

India, which has a good relationship with Karzai, is believed to have advised him to sign the agreement after President Barack Obama personally asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for help during their September meeting in Washington.

A continued US presence in Afghanistan is strategically important for India even though New Delhi is no longer as enthusiastic as it was a year ago. It is dismayed by the American rush to exit no matter what the aftermath and the haphazard plans to forge peace based on Pakistan`s advice. The US policy - or lack thereof - has left a sour taste in New Delhi.

Despite that India benefits from an American presence. At its most obvious, it helps keep a semblance of stability apart from bolstering counter-terrorism efforts. Less obviously, it reminds China not to flex too much or too hard.

Karzai`s gamble may upset the larger balance even if it brings him personal glory for standing up to the Americans. The irony is that extracting more concessions from Washington may not necessarily make him less of a pariah in the eyes of the Taliban.

Karzai`s demand that the US deliver a credible peace process before he can sign the BSA is partly aimed at pressuring Pakistan, a country where most of the key Taliban players reside. These are the men who launch attacks inside Afghanistan from their safe havens.

But Washington is in no mood to lean on Pakistan at this time because it needs Islamabad`s cooperation for the return of US troops and equipment. The rapprochement with Iran is still nascent and even though it provides a tantalizing new option for the US, keeping Pakistan in good humour appears necessary for the near future.

Interestingly, the Loya Jirga called by Karzai to approve the BSA came out strongly in favour of the agreement. It gave the president wide political cover. The delegates urged him to sign the BSA before the end of the year.

Yet Karzai made clear his signature will neither come now nor easily. In his closing speech he introduced several new wrinkles. The most surprising was his idea that the agreement should be signed after the April 2014 elections by a new president. In addition, he demanded an immediate end to US troops entering Afghan homes, an assurance that the US won`t meddle in the April 2014 elections and a demonstration of "sincere" support for the peace process. While the first can be negotiated, the last two are nebulous and in the realm of political gamesmanship.

The US is vehemently opposed to re-opening negotiations on the BSA for obvious reasons. It already has been a long and tortuous process, which Washington doesn`t want spilling over into the election process. There are 11 candidates fighting for the presidency and a security pact with the US hanging overhead would surely become an election issue.

"We have submitted our final offer on the text," White House Spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned that Karzai`s last-minute change of stance was a bad signal to the world. The BSA is expected to serve as a template for a similar agreement with NATO.

No surprise that The New York Times, often the voice of the US establishment, called Karzai "an unpredictable, even dangerous reed on which to build a cooperative future." It went on to say that there was "something unseemly about the United States having to cajole him into a military alliance that is intended to benefit his fragile country." The editorial reflects the level of frustration with Karzai, whom the Americans love to hate even as they work with him.

The BSA would allow the US to maintain up to nine bases in Afghanistan with a troop strength of anywhere between 5,000 to10,000. The troops will have immunity from local jurisdiction but they will not engage in combat operations except in "mutually agreed" circumstances. All the personnel associated with the bases will be able to enter without visas.

The duration of the bases is unclear. It is 10 years according to Karzai and the participants in the Loya Jirga and much shorter according to US officials.

The US and other western powers want the BSA concluded to plan their deployment for the next 10 years and negotiate with the US Congress for the funding and other inter-governmental necessities. But Karzai`s spokesman, Aimal Faizi said adamantly, "We recognize no deadline." For good measure he also added that, "We don`t believe there is a zero option."

Why Karzai has thrown a spanner in the works may have more to do with the personal than the national. While the BSA is in play and not signed, he has leverage with the US as a center of power. Given the distrust between the two sides, he knows after his signature, he will cease to matter to the Americans. But there are others who say Karzai is genuinely concerned that once the US gets the BSA, it will be back to its "old ways" of detaining Afghans and interfering in the elections.

Both sides have treated each other with something bordering on disdain over the years. As the brinkmanship continues, India should be worried but Pakistan`s generals are most likely feeling smug.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Seema Sirohi, a senior journalist specialising in foreign policy based in Washington DC.