Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Photo: Reuters
There is an Afghan saying that the man has thrown a punch but does not know how to get out of it. This is where President Hamid Karzai has placed himself in relation to the US, the power behind his throne for the past 12 years.
Karzai has negotiated a bilateral security agreement with the US, but has so far refused to sign it. Yet he is under enormous pressure from inside Afghanistan and from the US and its allies to ratify it before he steps down following the Afghan presidential election on April 5. His difficulty is that if he signs it he will lose face, and if he doesn't there are serious implications for himself and Afghanistan. What has brought him to this point?
Karzai took nearly two years to negotiate the bilateral security agreement with the Obama administration in order to enable the US to keep a residual force for training and anti-terrorism purposes in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal of most NATO troops from the country by the end of this year. He even convened a hand-picked loya jirga (the traditional Afghan grand assembly), which approved the agreement last November.
Yet he has decided not to sign the agreement until Washington agrees to ensure Afghanistan's security, to prevent its forces from violating Afghan houses and killing Afghan civilians and to be totally transparent and inclusive of the Afghan government in its negotiations with the Taliban for a political settlement. Otherwise, he has vowed to leave the responsibility for signing the agreement to his successor.
The irony is Karzai had all the opportunity in the world to raise these issues during the course of negotiating the agreement, which is not a treaty and does not oblige the US to defend Afghanistan in the event of outside aggression. Four considerations appear to have dominated his thinking as he approaches the end of his two constitutional terms in office. The first is his concern about how to protect his own future and that of his family, more important his brothers, who have formed the ''Karzai cartel'' and amassed a huge amount of wealth through mostly unsavoury deals during Karzai's presidency.
He wants to lock his successor into the agreement as a way of making him take responsibility for Karzai's legacy of failure in bringing stability and security to Afghanistan, and establishing good governance.
The second is to present himself as an Afghan nationalist and remove the stigma that has dogged him for so long as one empowered by the US and its allies. He is acutely aware of how the Afghan people have viewed as foreign puppets some of his predecessors, particularly Shah Shujah Durrani, who was enthroned by the British from 1839 to 1842, and Babrak Karmal and Najibullah, who assumed consecutively the Communist leadership of Afghanistan at the behest of the occupying Soviet power in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Karzai wants to be remembered as an Afghan hero who stood up to the very power that enabled him to assume the helm of Afghan politics.
The third is that he has genuinely become distrustful of the Obama administration, as the latter is of him. He has especially been irritated by Washington's secret dealings with the Taliban and its refusal to do enough to hit the insurgents' sanctuaries in Pakistan rather than focusing most of its military operations on Afghanistan at the cost of avoidable civilian casualties. The now released memoirs of former US secretary of defence Robert Gates detailing Obama's dislike of Karzai and Obama's purported lack of serious commitment to the Afghan war can only reinforce Karzai's distrust of Obama and Washington policymakers.
The fourth is that he thinks by resisting signing the agreement he can raise his credentials in the eyes of the Taliban and their affiliates, so that they could negotiate with his government directly rather than through Washington. Although his efforts have not produced any tangible results, as the Taliban are in no rush, there are reports of secret talks. Meanwhile, unless he succeeds in striking a political settlement that has the support of a cross-section of the Afghan mosaic society over the next few weeks, time is not on his side.
Karzai knows that if the agreement is not signed, it could disastrously affect Western military, economic and financial aid to Afghanistan, without which the country would have no other source of substantial income.
Afghanistan is dependent on foreign aid for 90 per cent of its annual revenue. It needs at least $8 billion in military and economic assistance a year if it is to stand a chance of maintaining its present situation: fragile and insecure, but nonetheless with a possibility of keeping the Taliban and their affiliates at bay.
Karzai has increasingly become concerned about his position and his legacy - something he should have thought about from the time he assumed political leadership on the back of US power.
Karzai now thinks he is in a stronger bargaining position than President Obama, and that neither the US nor its NATO allies want to see their project become a total failure. So he is happy to posture for as long as possible. At the end he may find he has little choice but to sign the agreement as there is no other power that could replace the US and its allies.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.