In recent weeks, Karzai has accused the United States of collaborating with the Taliban, torturing Afghan civilians, kidnapping university students and deliberately violating his country’s sovereignty by attempting to undermine Afghan institutions.
Karzai, who has no clear political rival, has said he will retire when his second term ends in 2014, as mandated by the Afghan constitution. But Afghan officials say the president’s public excoriation of the United States is a strategic move in a different campaign, one he fears losing: shedding his domestic image as an American puppet and establishing himself as an autonomous leader
Karzai is convinced, Afghan officials say, that publicly establishing his sovereignty will help him garner the support he needs to sell a partnership with the United States to the Afghan public, paving the way for the presence of American troops beyond 2014. Without such an agreement, political instability and deteriorating security could prompt the reemergence of ethnic and political factions, including some who count Karzai as an enemy and would like to see him dead.
“We need the people’s support,” said Aimal Faizi, Karzai’s spokesman, explaining the logic behind some of the recent statements. “We need that support in order to sign the bilateral security agreement.”
If that is Karzai’s aim, it is often hard to discern from his words. His public remarks are filled with insouciance toward a long-term agreement — a clear message that he has no attachment to U.S. forces if they don’t play by his rules.
Karzai seems eager to prove that he is willing to stomach an Afghanistan without foreign troops if it means that he’ll have proved his independence. The man who came to power thanks to American support would then leave behind a far different legacy, as officials close to him see it — that of a strong, sovereign Afghan leader “working for his own people,” Faizi said.
Recent interviews with Karzai’s top advisers have yielded the same brand of defiance. Even as foreign troop levels and billions of dollars in aid hang in the balance, Karzai’s presidential palace believes it has more leverage than the White House or NATO.
“For signing an agreement with the United States, we may pay a very high price,” said Abdul Karim Khurram, Karzai’s chief of staff, alluding to the possibility that such a deal could galvanize the insurgency and upset Iran and Pakistan.
Pulling the plug
Karzai’s hostility has been criticized by political rivals, and many U.S. and Afghan officials see his position as misguided and untenable. Some U.S. officials and politicians say there’s a limit to how much of Karzai’s acerbic rhetoric and misleading public accusations they can handle.