Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Rancour between the Allies: Karzai speaks to the Americans

Kate Clark 12 min

If the Americans ‘surrender’ to Afghan demands, President Karzai has said, he will sign a bilateral security agreement with them. He told an Afghan audience on national TV that the US wanted bases in Afghanistan – a globally significant country – and, as the audience laughed and applauded, he said: ‘The USA has come and will not go… Therefore, ask for your demands from it with no worries.’ These latest needling comments come at a time of extreme rancour between the president and his main international backer. The latest round of negotiations on a post-2014 US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement have had to be delayed while the governments try to sort out two bitter disputes on the presence of US Special Operations Forces in Wardak province (possibly resolved) and control of the detention facility at Bagram. Through all this, the fallout from the Afghan president’s apparent accusation on 8 March that the Taleban and US were in collusion has continued with the NATO secretary general describing the remarks as ‘absolutely ridiculous’ and the president’s spokesman calling NATO’s war ‘aimless’ and ‘unwise’. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, has been looking at this complex relationship, asking what is behind the president’s remarks. She also wonders if he has misjudged the mood in Washington and may actually be pushing at a closing door.


Rarely have relations been as inflamed between President Karzai and his international allies. The root of the tension is the still unresolved contradiction in the very nature of the US-Afghan relationship: Afghanistan is a sovereign nation, yet its leader does not have full control over his territory and all the military forces active on it. The US (and its allies) fund his state and armed forces. They fight insurgents on his soil and are not subject to Afghan jurisdiction. The US military detains and holds Afghans at Bagram air base and their special forces work with Afghan forces outside Afghan chains of command (see here). This contradiction is surely unresolvable while troops and funding continue.

But also running through many of the most contentious issues is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the war. The US/NATO mission is to weaken the insurgency and support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and government so that they can expand their influence and win over the population. Many Afghans believe foreign funding and military support has been crucial to the president’s rule. He, however, appears to believe that the foreign forces are fuelling the war, and peace will largely break out when they go. On 18 March, for example, answering questions from a studio audience in a joint venture by the state broadcaster, RTA, and the BBC(1), he insisted that worries over 2014 were the phantom product of western media propaganda which had then been replicated in the Afghan media:

When the foreigners leave Afghanistan in 2014 and someone attacks us from Pakistan in the name of the Taleban, I, you, our mothers and our sisters will stand against them with more courage and higher morals than today. It is the foreigners’ presence that has made us weak. Be confident about it. The Taleban have escaped from all the places where we have worked.

Do not worry at all. The Taleban, who belong to your country, will come and join you. The one, who is a Pakistani, will lose his courage after the foreigners leave. He is sitting and working there with that power. Be confident that nothing will happen.
(Source: BBC Monitoring. Also watch the programme here.)

From the president’s point of view, much of the war is, as his spokesman said on 19 March, ‘unwise’ and ‘aimless’ (see the press release here). During the RTA/BBC broadcast, for example, Karzai said that, during his last trip to the US, he had welcomed his hosts saying they no longer considered the Taleban as their enemy, only al-Qaida and told them, as al-Qaida’s ‘nests’ were not in Afghanistan: ‘Why do you arrest students in Afghanistan’s universities? Why do you search the Afghan people’s houses? Stop fighting, because in my opinion, there is no war in Afghanistan.’

It is perhaps not surprising then that Karzai comes up with what may look like strange and contradictory reasons for the US military presence. On 12 March, for example, he accused the US and Taleban of fighting each other about the control over Afghanistan’s mineral resources (watch his speech here). Yet just four days earlier, in his now infamous speech made on International Women’s Day and broadcast on 10 March as Chuck Hagel made his first visit to Afghanistan as US Secretary of Defence, the president had suggested the Taleban were secretly colluding with the United States to serve the American desire to stay in Afghanistan after 2014. The one or two sentences on the subject quoted by the media (see here and here) suggest the president could have been misunderstood (an accusation made by some Afghan commentators – see for example here – and, massively, on social media. Quoted in context, however, the president’s remarks are far less ambiguous:

I watched the news this morning which quoted the Taleban as saying that they killed ordinary Afghans in front of the Ministry of Defence of Afghanistan and in Khost to show their strength to the USA… In the meantime, their leaders and representatives are talking with the USA abroad every day… the USA meanwhile says the Taleban are not its enemy and its war is not against the Taleban but at the same time it is disturbing people on the pretext that there are Taleban in our country.

The Taleban are in talks with the USA everyday as well but carry out bombings in Kabul and Khost to show their strength to the USA. No. Yesterday’s bombings in Khost and Kabul were not aimed at showing their strength to the USA but to serve the USA. It was to serve the USA and to serve the motto of 2014 to intimidate us that if the USA is not present here, we will not let you [stay unharmed]. Thus, in fact, yesterday’s bombings in the name of the Taleban were aimed at serving the foreigners and supporting the presence of the foreigners in Afghanistan and keeping them in Afghanistan, by intimidating us.
(Source: BBC Monitoring. You can also watch the report here.)

Karzai appears to believes the US will stay in Afghanistan come hell or high water – as he told his RTA/BBC audience, the Americans ‘will not be going’ – and this gives him an unassailable bargaining position:

… we have good bases. We are an extremely important and strategic country in the heart of the world. We are surrounded by the world’s superpowers of today and tomorrow. Russia, China and India are here. And then smaller powers; Iran, Turkey and others are here. Afghanistan is the owner here. This is a power that we have in its own right. We must use this power in favour of Afghanistan. We give bases for the USA. It is welcome, but the USA should give its aid to us unconditionally and to the Afghan government. It should equip our air forces. It should build our water dams.
(Source: BBC Monitoring)

Bearing in mind, then, the president’s analysis of both the war and US motivations for being in Afghanistan, and his desire for sovereignty, his remarks do fit into some sort of logical pattern. His latest bout of what to many just looks like ‘foreigner bashing’ might also be an attempt to create some rhetorical distance from his backers, as he tries to tread a fine line between getting financial and military help from the foreigners and being seen to be beholden to them. He claimed his remarks were intended for ‘reform, not reproach or the destruction of the relationship’.(2) He has made many similar remarks which were perceived as ‘insulting’ or ‘upsetting’ in the West over the years and learned that they rarely have consequences in terms of the nature or amount of political, military or financial support (for an earlier look at how the US has swallowed such remarks, see here).

Yet again, this time, the commander of ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, tried to calm things down. ‘He’s a head of state that has both an internal and external audience,’ he told reporters. ‘He knows far better than I do how to manage internal and external audiences.’

Privately, however, Dunford ordered extra security measures because of fears Karzai could provoke green-on-blue or Taleban attacks (his order was leaked by the New York Times). And there was genuine anger and bewilderment in the US. As an excoriating editorial in the same newspaper, which called Karzai ‘America’s faithless partner’, ‘duplicitous’ and ‘sinister’, put it, his comments have jeopardised the billions of dollars of aid promised by the US and its allies and strengthened the case for a speedy and complete withdrawal of troops. (Also, see press reporting of US politicians’ comments here.)

Karzai’s remarks stirred up an almost call for jihad from the government-supporting Ulama Council.(3) ‘Better be beheaded than have a head which is bowed,’ it said on 16 March in a statement published and then withdrawn on the state-owned Bakhtar News Agency website. God did not allow Muslims to obey infidels (kufaar), the council stated, and if the US failed to withdraw its Special Forces from Wardak and hand over the detention facility at Bagram, its presence would amount to an occupation and possibly, therefore, it was hoping for a ‘reaction’. Rather a tailing off from what looked like an imminent call for jihad by the scholars, but it shows the rhetorical backing Karzai could enjoy from ‘his’ ulama – although, actually, the fact that the statement was taken down suggests that this kind of support was not quite what the Palace wanted.

Other Afghans fear Karzai is driving the west away. On 13 March, the Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalition of Afghanistan (CCPPCA) accused Karzai of using irresponsible and unbalanced rhetoric and risking endangering critical Western support.(4) The twenty-two parties and coalitions of the Afghan political opposition, as well as some allied to Karzai, called his remarks on the supposed US-Taleban secret deal ‘irresponsible’ and ‘unbalanced’. Behind all this is a suspicion that the president is deliberately stoking up insecurity in order to create a pretext to call off the elections: Engineer Hasim of the National Front indirectly referred to this when he accused the president of deliberately creating chaotic atmosphere for his own personal gain and to ‘extend his power over national issues’. The press conference looked like an attempt to assure the US that Karzai is not Afghanistan and it still has partners it can work with – obviously also a pre-elections gambit.

If the two governments are to sign a bilateral security agreement, the continuing conflict over Bagram is a microcosm of what still needs to be thrashed out. The handover of the detention facility has yet again been delayed, three days after Karzai had told Parliament it would be handed over. On 6 March, he promised MPs (as reported here) of his plans for the detainees:

We know that many innocents are languishing in this prison. Despite all the expected criticism, I will order the release of innocents so they can go to their homes… But people who are involved in killing Afghans by shooting them or bombing them will meet their punishment.

It may surprise readers that the president can speak about himself deciding innocence or guilt – surely this is the job of a judge? – but under the Afghan system, he can legally order pardons and may do this without informing anyone. Infamous examples include a Taleban commander in 2009 who had threatened to behead three UN workers held hostage – he also said he was among hundreds of Taleban given presidential pardons during that year’s Eid – and two gang rapists freed in 2008.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that the US is still baulking at handing over several dozen detainees whom it considers too dangerous to be released. Continuing lack of trust in the Afghan authorities appears focused on their reluctance to embrace detention without trial or to recognise a US right to veto all releases – despite these both appearing to have been agreed in the original Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed a year ago (see our reporting hereherehere and more recently here). For the president, it is insupportable that foreign forces detain and hold Afghans.

The other recent bitter dispute between the two sides is over whether US Special Operations Forces should leave Wardak province after accusations denied by NATO that US-allied Afghan fighters had tortured and killed people (for detail on the alleged abuses see here). There appeared to have been some push back on Karzai’s demand for all SOF to withdraw from the province by provincial senior government and security officials who asked him to allow them to remain because they believed they were crucial to maintaining security.(5)

A deal was finally struck on 20 March. However, the vague wording of the ISAF press release(6) led different media outlets to report that it: orders Special Forces to withdraw (see the BBC), allows them to stay (see Tolo News) or is simply unclear (see Reuters). What appears to be happening is the departure of the SOF from Nerkh district, with other districts to be ‘transitioned’ in an unspecified future. Such fudged deals can be face-saving or merely store up problems for later.

Karzai’s strategy appears either to rely on two beliefs. The first is that the Taleban will not menace the Afghan government once the foreign forces go. However, it is difficult to see the Taleban just slipping home after 2014, given that they refuse to countenance talking to the president on peace. Moreover, their response to his Women’s Day speech was scathing, jubilant and scornful, as they compared President Karzai to the puppet king Shah Shuja of the British in the nineteenth century.(7)

His other apparently core belief is that his negotiating position with the Americans is so strong, they will swallow any insult. For the US though, patience may finally be wearing thin. As AAN reported in January, support for the ‘zero option’, with no troops left behind after 2014, is increasing. The war in Afghanistan is not popular in the United States and its troop-deploying allies and Karzai’s remarks may merely be pushing at a closing door.

(1) ‘Open Jirga’ is a is a programme where members of the audience ask questions, usually to a panel, but in this case, to President Karzai alone. It is produced by Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) in partnership with BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity and the BBC’s language services for Afghanistan in Pashto and Dari.

(2) The full quote was:

My remarks have been for reform not for reproach or destruction of the relation. I want reform of the affairs between us and the USA; something that we have demanded for years; the issue of jails, private security firms and civilian casualties. We thank the USA for its assistance in all the areas, but where a very important, fundamental and vital interest of Afghanistan is involved, we want the USA to respect and recognize that interest of ours. We respect and honour the US and the west’s big interest in Afghanistan and the region and are not preventing it. We extend our legs according to the length of our carpet [a Dari adage], and they should also not extend their legs on our carpet.
(Source: BBC Monitoring)

(3) For background on the Ulama Council, see here.

(4) The Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalition of Afghanistan (CCPPCA) spans the political spectrum and was launched in a rare spirit of cooperation to press for greater democracy in the forthcoming elections. The 22 parties include most of the political opposition, as well as parties allied to Karzai (for full list and more information, see this report). The CCPPCA held a press conference on 13 March 2013 to condemn President Karzai’s remarks – ‘US and armed insurgents have made a hidden deal’ – and released the following statement:

i) The CCPPCA praised the international community, particularly the US commitment based on the war on terror, strengthening democracy and reconstruction of Afghanistan. The CCPPCA considers the international community’s commitment to support Afghanistan a priority of its political agenda and obligates itself as committed to take fruitful steps towards such commitment. It also suggests to the Afghan government that it avoid expressing irresponsible comments against the international alliance and its strategic partners.

ii) The CCPPCA considers the recent remarks of President Karzai to be part of his deliberate act that wheels the country towards serious crisis. We are waiting for the Afghan leader to pay adequate attention towards practicing rule of law, combating corruption, installing peace and stability and the legitimacy of the judicial body, instead of expressing these remarks.

Iii The CCPPCA suggests that the legislative accelerate its efforts towards proceeding towards the approval of electoral law and takes drastic steps to fulfil its national responsibilities.

iv At this period of time when Afghans are waiting to see the Afghan government take effective steps to pave the path towards a fair transition of the political system, the ensuring of security and stability before the withdrawal of international troops and a guarantee preventing widespread fraud in the upcoming presidential election. But the government’s resorting to spreading antagonistic remarks clearly shows that it is escaping from fulfilling its national responsibility and is unsuccessfully attempting to distract national opinion.
See also media reporting of the conference here.

(5) A letter leaked to Tolo News and seen by AAN had purportedly been sent to the president on 4 March by the provincial police, NDS and ranking army chiefs and the heads of the provincial council and provincial coordination centre. It said they did not agree with the speedy withdrawal of US Special Operations Forces (SOF) from the province or think it good for the government or for peace, sustainability or security in Maidan Wardak. The officials suggested giving more time to investigate the initial claims of abuse and said that, instead of withdrawing SOF, all decisions on operations could be taken by the Coordination Centre and the governor, using, ’the supportive role of the SOF to improve our national security forces, especially the Afghan Local Police.’

See also Tolo’s reporting on the provincial council’s opposition to the withdrawal.

(6) This was the press release:

ISAF and Afghan government reach agreement on Wardak
KABUL, Afghanistan – Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the ISAF commander, met with President Karzai at the palace earlier today to finalize the details on the way forward in Wardak province.

‘I am pleased to announce that following a very constructive series of talks with the president and the leadership of the MOD and MOI, we have come to agreement on a plan for Wardak that continues the transition of this critical province and meets the security needs of the people and the requirements of our mission,’ Dunford said.

Under the agreement, beginning with Nerkh district, which is currently secured by Afghan Local Police aided by coalition forces, the Afghan government will soon move Afghan National Security Forces into this area to provide security. The arrival of the ANSF will preclude the need for ALP and coalition forces in this area. The remainder of the province will transition over time.

‘I want to thank President Karzai for his leadership. This plan meets the president’s intent and leverages the growing capacity and capability of the Afghan security forces to meet the security needs of this country.This solution is what success looks like as we continue the transition to overall Afghan security lead,’ Dunford said.

The timeline for moving the ANSF into Nerkh district will be determined by the Afghan government.

The source is here.

(7) The Taleban statement said:

… it is not astonishing that the American soldiers are making fun of him and slapping him on the face because it is the philosophy of invaders that they scorn their stooge at the end; even they do not deal with him as human being and in this way punish him for his slavery!