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Reading Karzai's Mind

Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses the Loya Jirga, a meeting of tribal elders and leaders, in Kabul on November 24.
A contentious security deal between Afghanistan and the United States looked all but signed.

The Loya Jirga, a key national gathering of Afghan elders, had given its unanimous backing. All that was left was for both parliament and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to approve it.

But Karzai has stubbornly refused to sign the deal, a move that has infuriated Washington and baffled many Afghans. Here are several reasons why Karzai might be dragging out the process:

Reason No. 1: Karzai Thinks He Has Leverage

Karzai has played a high-stakes game over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) -- making new demands, breaking promises, criticizing Washington, and defying the wishes of the Loya Jirga.

He says he will only sign the deal after April’s Afghan presidential election -- and only if his new terms are met. These include the release of all Afghan prisoners held in the U.S.-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay and a complete halt to controversial U.S. raids on Afghan homes.

RFE/RL INTERVIEW: Karzai Agrees He'll Agree To Deal Once The U.S. Meets His Demands

David Young, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington, says that Karzai’s tactics could suggest a man who thinks he is in a position of strength and can get Washington to back down.

"Karzai is now effectively the sole remaining obstacle to the signing of the BSA. He holds all the cards," Young says. "He is either trying to selfishly distance himself from his makers to improve his legacy or he irrationally believes that moving the goal posts at the last minute will yield concessions that would have been impossible to obtain during the BSA negotiations."

Three main scenarios could play out: The United States could cave in to Karzai's additional demands or Washington could act on its threat to pull out all its troops if the deal is not signed by the end of this year. Alternatively, Karzai could abandon his pressure tactics, leading to agreement.

It's a risky strategy.

Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul, says Karzai could be making a gross miscalculation. "Politically, in Washington, attention is turning to other conflicts and other geopolitical issues," Smith says. "I think the Afghans do not understand how tired and broke the Americans are in Afghanistan."

Young says Washington could use Karzai's additional demands as an excuse to cut its losses. These include Karzai's refusal to sign the deal by the end-of-year deadline set by Washington. Another is Karzai's insistence that Washington halt all raids on Afghan homes. That would deny Washington the right to rescue its own soldiers if they were in danger or being held captive on Afghan property.

"Just simply [Karzai's] erratic behavior isn't enough for [Washington] to cancel such an important and strategic agreement," Young says. "They'll need a tangible excuse to take to the American people and to give Afghans if and when they pull the plug."

Reason No. 2: Karzai Doesn't Want a Deal

There is a possibility that Karzai does not actually want Washington as a partner and his recent demands are intended to derail the agreement.

Karzai has criticized Washington for failing to establish peace in Afghanistan and bringing suffering to its people. In an interview with RFE/RL this week, he went so far as to say that "the ongoing war in Afghanistan is being imposed on us and Afghans are being sacrificed in it for someone else's interests."

Michael Shank, an adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, says there is a chance Karzai took the BSA to the Loya Jirga believing it would be shot down.

But Shank says Karzai could have been surprised by the gathering's strong backing for the deal and has now made even more demands in a bid to jeopardize the deal. "I think it's very plausible that Karzai wants the U.S. out," he says.. "He thought U.S. home raids and legal immunity for U.S. soldiers would be deal breakers [for the Loya Jirga]. Clearly they weren't, so he's putting everything on the table now."

But Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, says that if Karzai did not want a deal he could have ensured that through the Loya Jirga, whose members were handpicked by the government.

"It's a huge gamble on Karzai's part to go against the recommendations of the Loya Jirga," Samad says. "Why would he have gone to this length to convene a Loya Jirga and then try to derail a deal? That would put him in a very precarious situation domestically and with Afghanistan's allies."

Reason No. 3: Karzai Knows The U.S. Will Eventually Leave

It is also possible that Karzai believes Washington will leave anyway and so he is trying to demonstrate his credentials as a great Afghan defender in order to save his own legacy.

Karzai has been at pains to prove his record as an independent and patriotic leader and to distance himself from his makers in Washington. He wants to be remembered as the leader who did not sell out to the interests of foreign powers and instead freed Afghanistan from the clutches of Afghanistan's neighbors and the West.

"If I sign it and peace does not come, who will be blamed for it by history?" Karzai asked members of the Loya Jirga on November 24. "If I sign it today and tomorrow we don't have peace, who would be blamed by history? So that is why I am asking for guarantees."
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.