ISLAMABAD — Afghan President Hamid Karzai is continuing to defend his decision to put off signing the key security pact allowing foreign troops to operate in Afghanistan after 2014. Critics and analysts say he has several possible motives for postponing the deal, but the stakes are so high that many believe it will eventually go through.
NATO is scheduled to terminate its current combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. U.S. officials insist they must have the security pact in place without any delay to continue counterterrorism operations and allow for a residual American military presence to train and advise Afghan forces beyond 2014.
A traditional Afghan grand assembly (known as a Loya Jirga) last month urged President Hamid Karzai to sign the bilateral security agreement, but he says he will not sign it before certain demands are met.
Speaking in India last week, the president said Washington must end raids on Afghan homes, end drone strikes, and encourage the Taliban to open peace talks with his government.
“Now, if it is done before the elections I will go ahead and allow it to be signed. If it is not done before the elections then the next Afghan president should undertake the responsibility and do it. So, it is not time bound it is action bound,” said Karzai.
Karzai also has dismissed as “brinkmanship” U.S. warnings that a long delay in signing the pact could mean a total pullout of its forces.
Afghan politicians, representatives of civil society and the business community have all urged the president to finalize the deal. They say Karzai’s reluctance is causing nationwide uncertainty and confusion.
Many Afghans, including parliamentarian Khalid Pashtoon, are now speculating about the president's motives in not yet signing an agreement that so many of his peers and allies support.
“It looks like he is trying to achieve some credit from the people, you know, like he is very nationalist, he does care for Afghanistan, he does care for the future of Afghanistan and he does not want to show himself as a puppet of foreign powers. On the other hand, some people are saying that he may have some personal needs, some personal demands that he may ask from the U.S. side,” said Pashtoon.
Opposition politicians like Humayun Shah Asefi say President Karzai’s reluctance to respect a Loya Jirga decision is unprecedented in national history.
“Maybe he is seeking some personal advantages because a huge majority of Afghans and nearly all the [presidential] candidates, they want that this agreement must be signed,” said Asefi.
Although President Karzai has repeatedly vowed to stay neutral in the April election, his political opponents and independent experts fear that by delaying the agreement, President Karzai may be pressing for Washington’s tacit backing for his “favored” presidential candidate.
Karzai's brother, Quayum Karzai, and his close aid, former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, are among the top presidential candidates. Skeptics like Kabul-based political commentator Said Azam say that the incumbent president is unlikely to stay neutral.
“He has explicitly said that he might support someone as a person, as an individual, as a citizen of the country. So, I think he will definitely support someone and he wants to have a strong say in forthcoming administration because he does not want to be seen just as an ex-president without having any particular leverage over decisions being made over the next five to ten years,” said Azam.
Whatever the political calculations behind the standoff, security analysts say the security agreement is critical for the government and security forces; both remain heavily dependent on foreign assistance.
Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, says the delay is putting much-needed financial and military aid in jeopardy.
“The Afghan state is dependent for nine-tenths of its budget on international assistance. The entire military budget comes from U.S., four billion dollars a year. If that is seriously cut then the Afghan army and state will collapse just as they did in 1992 when Soviet aid was cut off with the fall of Soviet Union and the thing is what Karzai may not realize the deep desire of many Americans and Europeans just to get out of Afghanistan and to forget about the place,” said Lieven.
Politicians and independent commentators say there is hardly anyone in Afghanistan who believes that their president will stick to his stand for long. But they also say that by prolonging the process, Karzai has succeeded in keeping himself at the center of the debate over the country's future, a role he has long grown accustomed to.