Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s latest vague and controversial anti-U.S. remarks were puzzling to many people both inside and outside Afghanistan, as they implied that the United States is inadvertently colluding with the Taliban. Despite the fact that he later accused the media of misinterpreting his comments and tried to clarify his remarks during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul, his comments generated a lot of noise, confusion, and varied interpretations by political commentators.
The most popular interpretations explained that Karzai’s bizarre remarks were likely aimed at cementing his patriotic image. Others believed his comments were attempts to rebuild his legacy as he nears the end of his term in office. Some speculated that they were a result of “bad advice” from his political cronies.
All of these interpretations may have shades of truth to them, yet there is another unnoticed nuance to Karzai’s remarks. Karzai is displaying his influence over the U.S. because of two important matters: peace talks with the Taliban and the 2014 presidential elections.
With regard to the peace talks, Karzai wants to take the lead on the process, undermine any existing secret negotiation channels that have excluded him, and at a minimum, reduce Kabul’s dependence on Pakistan’s cooperation for the success of any future peace talks. Having felt excluded from the “secret channels” allegedly opened by the United States to hold negotiations with the Taliban, Karzai also wants the Taliban to know that approaching the Americans for peace talks will end up nowhere if his government is not involved.
To be able to dominate the political landscape, Karzai needed to showcase his power and authority to the Taliban and counter the militants’ long-running accusations that he is a “powerless” “puppet” of the Americans and that he does not have authority over major decisions in the country So he staged the recent political drama by ratcheting up his demands on the transfer of the Parwan Detention Facility from the U.S. military to the Afghan government and the expulsion of U.S. Special Forces from parts of Wardak province. He also stepped up his anti-U.S. rhetoric to ensure his demands were met despite widespread opposition from influential political and social groups in the country. To add weight to his demands, he even involved the Council of Religious Scholars, a body widely considered to be a tool for advancing Karzai’s personal political goals. While he achieved both demands, it was a political gamble that brought Afghan-U.S. relations to their lowest point in the last decade. Yet for Karzai, the end result was that he managed to display his authority and influence over a major international player, though it has yet to produce any breakthroughs in terms of holding direct talks with the Taliban.
The second issue on Karzai’s mind is the 2014 presidential election. He is constitutionally barred from running for another term, and the Afghan president knows well that his survival and his family’s and clan’s statuses in post-2014 Afghanistan depend on whomever becomes the next leader of the country. Karzai’s anti-U.S. rhetoric and what it achieved will reinforce his position as a “Kingmaker” in the upcoming elections. This is likely to mobilize powerbrokers around him and make it easier for his handpicked candidate to win the election because in Afghanistan, the perception of power is more important than actual power.
For Karzai, having a handpicked successor who ensures the continuation of his and his family’s interest and political survival is more a matter of necessity than choice. This is because, in the incredible tale of Afghan history, many rulers of the country and their families have either been brutally killed or have faced permanent exile in foreign lands. This unfortunate historical precedent has become even more prominent as five out of nine Afghan leaders and their immediate families have been murdered since the Communist revolution in 1978. For Karzai, the stakes are even higher if he loses power or if he becomes politically irrelevant. After all, members of the Karzai family and tribe have enjoyed incredible riches and political domination of southern Afghanistan over the last 12 years, sometimes at the cost of other tribes and political rivals. Since 2001, his relatives and tribe have ruled the south of the country–where Afghan kings have historically hailed from–more like the Sopranos of Kandahar than the Kennedys of Afghanistan.
With the Afghan election date fast approaching, the United States should expect more such erratic statements from Karzai. But they should also understand that Karzai’s anti-U.S. statements neither reflect nor speak for the wider Afghan public view of the United States. In fact, Karzai was taken aback by the harsh criticism he faced from majority in the country, including members of his own government. This backlash stemmed from the anxiety that has gripped the country over the widespread belief that a premature withdrawal of the U.S.-led NATO troops will mark the beginning of a civil war in the country. Many Afghans see their leader’s frantic and bizarre statements as not only damaging to the national interests of the country, but also further throwing the country into the arms of Afghanistan’s two rapacious neighbors: Pakistan and Iran.
Najib Sharifi is the Director of Afghanistan New Generation Organization—a youth empowerment body based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former NPR producer.