For a decade, American troops have fought and died defending Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. On Thursday, with the U.S. defense secretary looking on from Kabul, Karzai demanded that those troops stop fighting for him.
“Afghanistan is ready right now,” Karzai said in a statement, “to take all security responsibilities completely.”
With so much evidence to the contrary, it is tempting to assume that Karzai’s pronouncement is simply another provocation from a war-weary leader angered by American military lapses, the most recent of which was a U.S. Army staff sergeant’s alleged shooting rampage that killed 16 Afghan civilians last weekend. Karzai said Friday that he is “at the end of the rope” over how the U.S. military has handled the incident.
But he is not lashing out at the Americans — whose might and money seem so crucial to his survival — merely in frustration over his inability to control their conduct. The Afghan president’s reaction is rooted in his own evolution over nearly a decade of leading the country.
So what is he really thinking? When Karzai speaks, what should America hear?
Over the past month, I have talked with several of Karzai’s current and former aides about his views on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. They describe a president whose personality and political convictions have become fundamentally opposed to the American approach. His rhetoric is not simply a stunt for Afghan domestic consumption, or to show that he is no puppet president, as U.S. officials sometimes suggest. It is a product of a deep-seated aversion to violence and an unshakable suspicion about U.S. motives in Afghanistan.
For much of his second term, Karzai has been consistent in his belief that American troops are creating more problems than solutions in the war against the Taliban. The latest outrages — the viral video that apparently depicts Marines desecrating corpses, the burning of Korans by U.S. service members, the civilian casualties in Kandahar province — have reinforced his argument that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is counterproductive. His demand that NATO forces stay out of Afghan villages and withdraw onto large bases follows a litany of earlier orders: the cessation of NATO airstrikes, Special Operations night raids and home searches; the abolishment of private security companies, NATO’s provincial reconstruction teams and American-run prisons.
The roots of Karzai’s views are as long as the war, but the confrontation with the United States intensified during his 2009 reelection campaign, a period one aide described as the “wound that never healed.” Palace officials say Karzai became convinced that the Obama administration actively sought to engineer his defeat. When he prevailed, they say, he saw the new American focus on fighting Afghan government corruption as another way to discredit him. If palace aides brought him advice that he considered too pro-American, they recalled, he sometimes dismissed it as the manipulations of the “yellow building,” as he called the U.S. Embassy down the road.