Karzai's Demands On Security Pact Puzzle Afghans, Westerners

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long been an enigma to U.S. policymakers. He's been known to praise and bury the U.S., his primary benefactor, in the same sentence. But his latest burst of intransigence over the security agreement with the U.S., and his defiance of the Loya Jirga that he called for, has both Afghans and Westerners in Kabul wondering if there is any method to the madness.

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Afghanistan's President Hamed Karzai is an enigma to many, even among his own people. In the same sentence, he sometimes praises and condemns the U.S., his primary benefactor. Now, he's refusing to sign a bilateral security pact with the U.S. after he endorsed it. Instead, Karzai is trying to tack on additional demands. As NPR's Sean Carberry reports, Afghans and Westerners alike are trying to decipher Karzai's agenda.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Turn on the TV in Kabul and you're likely to see something like this. A TOLOnews channel presenter is asking an analyst about Karzai's latest preconditions that the U.S. immediately halt military raids on Afghan homes and take definitive steps to start a peace process with the Taliban.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: The Afghan analyst says Karzai is not just trying to get more concessions from the U.S., he's also trying to bolster his position as a kingmaker, ahead of next year's presidential election when his own term ends.

IDRIS FAEZ: He wants someone to be elected according to his recommendation.

CARBERRY: Twenty-nine-year-old Idris Faez(ph) and his friends are discussing the situation over lunch at the Chief Burger restaurant in Kabul. They agree that Karzai's attempt to renegotiate parts of the security agreement is mostly about manipulating the presidential election. But Faez says Afghans are increasingly perplexed by their president's comments.

FAEZ: Nobody knows what our president wants.

CARBERRY: Some Afghans speculate that Karzai simply doesn't want to be on the hook for signing a deal allowing U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan. But Kate Clark with the Afghanistan Analysts Network argues Karzai's motivations are more basic.

KATE CLARK: At the moment, he has the power of the man who is still bargaining.

CARBERRY: She says once the security agreement is signed, Karzai will essentially become a lame duck. Clark says Karzai is also worried about the implementation of the agreement.

CLARK: He is genuinely frightened that once the Americans get their deal, there will be no holds barred on what they do in Afghanistan.

CARBERRY: On her visit to Kabul earlier this week, National Security Adviser Susan Rice told Karzai that if he doesn't sign the deal by the end of this year, the U.S. will have to begin planning a complete withdrawal of its troops by the end of next year when the NATO mission ends. And that will likely mean a cut off of billions of dollars in aid for Kabul.

AIMAL FAIZI: According to us, this is not going to happen.

CARBERRY: Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi, says U.S. threats of a so-called zero option are nothing more than a bargaining tactic and Karzai will not be bullied. But Karzai is finding himself increasingly isolated. Even many of his supporters are criticizing the president for playing a high-stakes game of chicken over Afghanistan's future. Clark argues that Karzai's thinking is driven by a history of the U.S. appeasing him, even when he accuses them of colluding with the Taliban or intentionally killing civilians.

CLARK: And whenever he's pushed or said outrageous things or insulted, they've always come back. I mean, he's never found the American red line.

CARBERRY: Faizi says Karzai has every intention of signing the security agreement and it could happen within a month. But the timing is now up to the U.S.

FAIZI: It depends on how flexible the United States is on these two issues, ending military operations on Afghan homes and launching the peace process.

CARBERRY: So far, the U.S. has given no indication it's willing to meet these demands and the question on people's minds here is, even if the U.S. does agree, what conditions will Karzai come up with next? Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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