By defying Washington and delaying his signature on the bilateral security agreement with the United States to continue financial and military aid for Afghanistan after 2014, President Hamid Karzai is being both very astute and supremely foolish — astute in a personal and Afghan context, foolish in an American one.
Mr. Karzai is clearly trying to garner nationalist support, especially among his fellow Pashtuns. He may also hope that withholding his signature may give him some leverage over Washington during next April’s Afghan presidential elections — which he may well need, since these elections are extremely unlikely to proceed according to strict Western democratic rules. Mr. Karzai’s own desired future as a powerful figure in Afghanistan depends on this, but he may also genuinely believe that an ability to manage these elections peacefully (rather than democratically) is crucial to preserving the Afghan state.
Unfortunately, United States support is also crucial to Afghanistan’s future. The key issue is not American bases, but money. At present, barely one tenth of the Afghan budget is paid for by Afghan revenues, and there is no realistic chance of quickly increasing those revenues. Virtually the entire military and development budgets are paid for through American and Western aid. Washington has insisted that a deal that would allow for an American troop presence through 2024 and sets the stage for billions of dollars in international aid needs to be signed by the end of this year.
This is where Mr. Karzai’s maneuvering is so dangerous for Afghanistan. For he does not appear to recognize the depth of the desire in Washington and European capitals to be quit of the whole Afghan morass. Mr. Karzai is therefore playing Russian roulette with a pistol pointed at his country’s head, and may not even realize how many of its chambers are loaded.
Exasperation with Afghanistan and those in Mr. Karzai’s circle has built up almost since the day the West started to put its government together. Anger has been generated above all by accusations of corruption and dealing in heroin. These allegations are naturally infuriating to Western voters and their representatives.
Yet it is also possible to view this issue in another light: that of an existential clash between the West’s ideologically based aims and Afghanistan’s political realities and traditions. Alongside this lies another clash, between completely contradictory policies by the United States itself. For the agenda that the West set in Afghanistan, and the highly centralized modern state that was supposed to carry out its changes, could only have been achieved over a vastly longer period of time and with a vastly greater Western commitment than any administration in Washington has been prepared to contemplate.
Lacking this Western commitment, Mr. Karzai has been forced to pursue the strategy of weak Afghan states throughout much of the country’s history — that of buying off local strongmen, ethnic groups and tribes, and turning a blind eye to their activities. We in the West call this corruption and criminality. Yet this criticism is hardly honest. It was the United States military, with its notorious suitcases of dollars, which helped re-establish warlord control over the Pashtun territories after the fall of the Taliban. American force helped these warlords to eliminate rivals, and in doing so, roused local anger, which helped provide a basis for the return of the Taliban.
To this day, the United States and NATO actively support a number of criminal chieftains in southern Afghanistan, simply because they see no better alternatives when it comes to fighting the Taliban. How exactly does this differ from the Karzai behavior we so bitterly condemn? It may well be true that Mr. Karzai is neither the most honest nor the most stable of individuals; but the conflicting pressures he faces and the mixed messages he receives could drive anyone to dishonesty or madness.
It is important to recognize the West’s record, because real or feigned moral outrage is being used today by Western politicians whose real desire is to please their own electorates by ending further commitments to Afghanistan.
If the United States does withdraw its forces and end its aid, the result will be a collapse of the Afghan National Army and state, just as both collapsed when Soviet aid ended in early 1992 with the demise of the Soviet Union. As they did then, Afghan soldiers will go home with their weapons to join a range of different militias and gangs. As after 1992, Afghanistan will be plunged into anarchy — precisely the situation that brought the Taliban to power in the first place.
Moreover, the civil war of the 1990s was one to which the United States had contributed immensely, first by stuffing the anti-Soviet mujahideen with American money and weapons, and then walking away from any attempt to broker an agreement between the different Afghan forces. If today we end help to an Afghan state that we have so designed that it cannot survive without our help, then for the second time in a generation we will have betrayed the people of Afghanistan.
Assuming that Mr. Karzai does eventually sign the security agreement, the United States needs to continue full and enhanced support for Afghanistan. Recognizing that aid cannot last for more than a few years at present levels, the Obama administration should urgently pursue new talks with the Taliban. To enable this, Washington should agree to the Taliban demand to release a number of prisoners, and remove Taliban leaders from its terrorism lists, allowing them to take part in international discussions.
The central fault of the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy is that it has been half-hearted in everything. It launched a half-hearted military surge with an absurdly short deadline, followed by a half-hearted commitment to further military support, and then accompanied this with half-hearted peace overtures. If Washington does not finally start paying attention, it will risk a catastrophe in Afghanistan that would also be the greatest blow to American prestige since the fall of Saigon.
Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, is the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country.