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Is Karzai With or Against the U.S.?

Barack Obama, Hamid Karzai

By Wali Shaaker

The U.S. media and political elite have reacted with disappointment and confusion concerning the Afghan President’s recent accusation during his meeting with the American Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. He accused the U.S. o negotiating behind his back with the Taliban on a daily basis. This is not surprising at all. For more than a decade, the U.S. has borne enormous human and economic losses trying to protect Karzai and his government and help restore security in Afghanistan. Thus, a brazen claim as such was not to be expected from a close ally, still in dire need of the American support.

Nevertheless, there may have been a reason or two behind Karzai’s affirmation of distrust toward the American foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan. One could link Karzai’s statement to a strategy that aims to distant himself from the U.S. As a common element, this could prove helpful when and if Karzai sits behind the negotiations table with the Taliban. In addition, he may have considered that standing up to the Americans would improve his public image and credibility in the Afghans’ eyes. Yet, rationalization aside, Karzai has never been known for his oratory skills and diplomatic style of communication, especially, at times of disagreement with the Americans.

To strike a peace deal with the Taliban, Karzai could intensify his efforts to create a gap between himself and the U.S., and control the means through which it could appease the Taliban after ISAF’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Therefore, he insists on the transfer of authority of American-led detention centers, in which a great number of Taliban elite fighters remain captive. As a bargaining chip, each prisoner would provide Karzai with ample advantage in luring the radical militants to the negotiating table. This could lead to an outcome deemed favorable by Karzai. In addition, by appearing to remain distant from the Americans, he makes a positive gesture, aimed to appease the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami, and conservatives within his own administration.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that Karzai is fretful about his reputation as a president initially brought to power by the U.S. He is concerned that his name would be written in history books next to those of Shah Shuja installed by the colonial British, Babrak Karmal, known as a Soviet loyalist, and Mulla Omar, who is considered a Pakistani puppet. From the Afghan perspective, each man is guilty of treason. Through choosing a harsh stance toward the U.S., Karzai attempts to distinguish himself from his predecessors. He seems willing to risk his relationship with the U.S. political elite in order to prove wrong those who call him a U.S. puppet.

Meanwhile, let us not forget that Karzai has never been known for his diplomatic skills and aptitude in public speaking. Although he is fluent in Pashto, Dari, and English, he often utilizes simple, colloquial, language unsuitable for expressing the depth of his ideas, and explaining the complexity of issues.  Often, his conversational style falls short of meeting the standards of diplomatic speech. In addition, while trying to articulate his thoughts, at times he fails to consider the adverse impact of his words on his personal relationship with the U.S. officials and its subsequent effect on the Afghan-American relations. This has not proven helpful in strengthening a cooperative relationship between the two countries.

Karzai’s undiplomatic tone can be interpreted as a desperate attempt on his part to assert the kind of legitimacy that he should have earned through effective leadership. It is to differentiate between him and other leaders, who were also empowered with assistance by a foreign entity. He aims to assert his independence and strengthen his position among Afghans in order to remain relevant to the political process. Apparently, to achieve this, jeopardizing his relations with the Americans is a risk he is willing to take.

Source: pashtun women viewpoint website and the writer; Wali Shaaker is the author of Democracy’s Dilemma: The Challenges to State Legitimacy in Afghanistan. He is a cultural advisor and political analyst based in Washington,

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