Over the last few days Afghan President Hamid Karzai has found it increasingly difficult to stop saying in public all the things that he has been saying in private for months: Who do these foreigners think they are, what are they playing at, and do they really think they can push me and my people around forever? Observers have sought to understand what this means in terms of his partnership with the international actors, his state of mind and his outlook for the future.
The assumption in some of the commentaries seems to be that Karzai is speaking for the Afghan people when he slams the international presence and that his remarks on joining the Taliban, if things go on like this much longer, could signal an actual shift in the government’s politics. Neither seems to be the case. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for western audiences to separate the government, the Taliban and the people. And the question that is repeatedly raised in all its variations is: If the President wants to join the Taliban and if the people don’t want us there, why are we still in Afghanistan?
So for the record: Karzai is not about to join the Taliban. He is an angry and frustrated politician and he is sending signals. To the Parliament that he is seriously upset and that they need to mend their ways; to the international actors, that he really minds that they keep meddling in his affairs; to the population that he is their president and that he has a mind of his own; and to the insurgency that he is closer to them than they think.
The American reaction was measured, but the displeasure was unmistakable. The Taliban spokesperson responded that they would probably want to bring Karzai to court before accepting him in their ranks. And the Afghans, many of whom have issues of their own with the international presence (not in the first place that it is there, but rather its role in the failure to establish a stable society and a credible government), did not embrace the speeches of their president — to the contrary. Most reactions to the past days’ events have been a combination of amusement, embarrassment and concern over what this means for the country’s international relations and future stability.
Karzai struggles with the multiple roles he is expected to play — commander in chief, credible partner of the "international community," president in control, provider for his people — and now more so than ever, as the ground he is standing on is shifting. He is increasingly trying to play all sides and to be a president not just for his government, but also for the people and the insurgents. But so far, to their ears, his words have sounded all wrong, as he is too openly implicated in whatever he is blaming the foreigners of.
Martine van Bijlert is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally published.