Center for Strategic Communication

 By Patricia Lee Sharpe

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been training his verbal artillery at the U.S. for the last couple of years. Barrage after barrage of bitter recrimination. He’s nearing the end of his second term as President of Afghanistan. Unless he has a coup in mind, a notion no one seems to be entertaining, come April he won’t have to be dealing with contemptuous American officials scolding him for non-cooperation in public anymore. And so, increasingly, he’s letting it be known that the negative feelings are mutual.

Dan Roberts of The Guardian thinks that a constitutionally term-limited Karzai is mostly concerned with defining his “legacy,” making sure that he’ll be seen as an Afghan patriot, not an American puppet, when this phase of Afghan history is written for the ages. Roberts may be on to something here.

On the other hand, Karzai may be using his anti-Americanism in a calculated way, shading his bio-data to give him an advantage as he seeks a post-presidential role in Afghan politics. This is the theory of Peter Tomsen at Politico, who believes that the wily Karzai is “maneuvering for future relevance, drawing on his period in office and on his tribal status as leader of the important Pashtun Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan.” Thus, Karzai may “hope to be seen as an elder tribal leader and international statesman deserving respect and deference by the winning candidate [in the upcoming presidential election], and by Afghan political, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders generally—including the Taliban,” who may gain in strength after NATO and the US withdraw.

Meanwhile, not only have American officials, civilian and military, complained that Karzai is volatile, unpredictable, a poor manager and a corrupt politician, the U.S. President himself has weighed in, describing him as an “unreliable and ineffective partner.” All of which is fairly amusing because, if I recall rightly, Hamid Karzai was snatched from international obscurity and promoted for the presidency by…..the Americans!

So what has the allegedly obnoxiously uncooperative Karzai been saying?

Accused of being ungrateful for American sacrifices in Afghanistan, some 2000 troops killed over the past ten years, Karzai has observed that the Americans didn’t insert themselves into Afghanistan to help Afghans but rather to protect themselves against international terrorism. Even so, Karzai conceded in an interview with NBC, Afghans are indeed “grateful” for having been freed of Taliban rule in 2001. However, he added, U.N. data shows that 3000 Afghans were killed during the first six months of 2012 alone. What’s more, instead of rampaging through Afghan villages, smashing into Afghan homes and frightening Afghan women, those American troops should have taken the battle to the mountainous areas of Pakistan “where the roots of terrorism exist.” Speaking to CNN, Karzai noted that Afghanistan itself lacks the modern equipment needed to carry the war to Pakistan. “I asked the U.S. government to equip our air force with weapons, intelligence and transport planes—and we still haven’t received a response….If they show no interest in this, we will decide whether to purchase from Russia, China, India or any other country.” This may or may not be a bluff, but Karzai is stoutly resisting American pressure to sign a security agreement before the upcoming elections in April. Given his theory that the Americans are in Afghanistan for their own good, Karzai’s probably calculating that they’ll find a reason not to walk away, and so he’ll keep their military support and burnish his reputation as a bold nationalist at the same time.

Having recently been reminded of President Obama’s “unreliable and ineffective partner” charge, the nadir perhaps of years of U.S. carping and criticism,  Karzai did not respond with submissive contrition.  He explained it away.  The Americans are upset, he said,  “because where they want us to go along, we don’t go along. They want us to keep silent when civilians are killed. We will not, we can not.” And as for Americans trying to pressure him into signing the security agreement, Karzai let it be known that “classic colonial exploitation” won’t work with him. “They can’t push us up against the wall….Afghans will not submit. They have already fought colonial masters. They don’t accept it.”  

Criticized for releasing from prison long-held, never formally-charged Taliban prisoners considered to be congenital terrorists by the U.S., Karzai went on the offensive. “Afghanistan is a sovereign country,” he told attendees at a conference in Turkey. “If the Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. I hope that the US will stop harassing Afghanistan’s procedures and I hope the US will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty.”  

Nor is Karzai taking recurrent U.S. accusations that he runs a government studded with corrupt officials lying down. He has another version:  “I’ve come to believe (that)…corruption comes from the United States through contracts,” he told NBC,   adding that “the perception of corruption is deliberate to render the Afghan government exploitable, to weaken it.” In fact, Karzai is not alone in fingering the U.S. contracting process. U.S. Government studies have faulted U.S. agencies for not keeping tabs on contractors with sticky fingers and a tendency to get things done by greasing palms, even to the point of paying Taliban-associated figures big bucks to guarantee the safety of U.S. convoys from Taliban attack!  Tens of millions of dollars have mysteriously diappeared, it seems, a not unusual story, unfortunately.

All in all, when it comes to Karzai’s strenuous public criticism of U.S. Afghan policy and those who carry it out,  what he has to say can usually be reduced to a plea for recognizing sovereigny and showing respect. Respect for the country. Respect for its people.  Those American boots on the ground are stomping on Afghan dignity and American officials are shaming Afghanistan with incessant public criticism.

So Ahmed Karzai, feeling his country insulted, feeling himself insulted, is an angry man who is no longer willing to suffer in silence,  which will make the remaining pre-election weeks extremely awkward for Americans officials who are praying for more congenial counterparts in a post-Karzai Afghan dispensation. U.S. Senator Karl Levin is already celebrating. He has been quoted as saying, “Whoever the next Afghan president is, he is likely to be more reliable than President Karzai and his signature [on the security agreement] is likely to instill more confidence than would Karzai’s signature.”

Oh dear, Mr. Levin! Think again.  Once upon a time Hamid Karzai was America’s anointed Afghan savior aka puppet in the making. What makes you so sure that a future president of the extremely independent tribesmen (and women)  who make up the country known as Afghanistan will be any more subservient to outside interests than the current one?

On the contrary, like Karzai, the new president will certainly be an ardent nationalist. Like Karzai, he’ll surely have a prickly sense of honor. He will also take no more kindly to American dictation than Karzai has.

The question is this: Can the U.S. shake off its ethnocentricity and learn from counter-productive past arrogance?  This time around, will the American side evince (in public, at least) a little more respect for the dignity of the people, to say nothing of their legendary commitment to self-rule, even if (privately) many Amnericans consider Afghanistan a benighted hopeless mess?  In fact, what secular Afghans would really like is less fiddling with Afghan society and politics and more effort as a buffer between themselves and a Taliban-supporting Pakistan.  This puts the U.S. in a tricky position, but handling tricky positions is what diplomacy is all about.