Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, had harsh words for NATO Tuesday on the 12th anniversary of the Afghanistan War, as time runs out for his administration to strike a deal on complete troop withdrawal — expected by the end of 2014.
"On the security front, the entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life and no gains, because the country is not secure," Karzai said in an interview with the BBC.
Washington and Kabul are trying to finalize a much-delayed security pact that will shape the post-2014 international military presence in Afghanistan. The U.S. intends to withdraw most troops by the end of next year, including 34,000 in February, but the inability to broker a deal with Karzai’s administration has left the future uncertain.
Negotiations have stalled over, among other things, Afghan concerns regarding a U.S. desire to undertake counterterrorism operations in the country after 2014.
“The agreement has to suit Afghanistan's interests and purposes,” Karzai told the BBC. “If it doesn't suit us, and if it doesn't suit them, then naturally we will go separate ways." U.S. troops are free to leave if leaders fail to swing a mutually agreeable pact, he added.
Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it’s always difficult to tell if Karzai is speaking his mind or simply posturing, but the tone in this latest interview conveys that the Afghan president is fed up with the U.S.-led NATO presence in his country.
“It’s fairly clear that he’s even more frustrated with us now than he’s been in the past," said Biddle.
At least 2,146 U.S. military have been killed in the Afghanistan War, which has cost U.S. taxpayers between $4 and $6 trillion by some estimates. As the war enters its thirteenth year, the Afghan president’s relationship with his Western backers seems as tumultuous as ever. Karzai accuses the United States, in particular, of imposing its will on his country and failing to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty.
He is especially critical of civilian casualties, which are on the rise in Afghanistan. More than 1,000 Afghan civilians were killed and roughly 2,000 others injured in the first half of 2013, according to a U.N. report. The numbers represent a 23 percent increase from the same period last year.
The Afghan president says relations with the U.S. have worsened since 2005, when civilian casualties began. He says it was then that the war on terror was derailed.
“What we wanted was absolute security and a clear-cut war against terrorism,” said Karzai.
Karzai has repeatedly — and as recently as Sunday — criticized his NATO allies for their failure to safeguard Afghan civilians. He condemned a strike on Friday, which he says killed five people, as the latest NATO operation to inflict civilian casualties.
NATO completed the handover of control over the country's security operations to Afghan forces in June, but the transition has been far from clean. In 2012, the Economist found that as many as one in seven NATO deaths came at the hands of Afghan troops, and a spate of recent incidents suggest that this trend is continuing.
If animosity between the U.S. and Afghanistan continues, the prospects for resetting course alongside cooperative Afghan partners are bleak, Biddle said.
“I think we’re heading into a period in which the war is likely to be stalemated," he said, adding that if a peace settlement — which would have to involve the Taliban — is not negotiated in time, "then the Afghan government is very likely to collapse, and we’re likely to see 1990s-era civil warfare."
As the clock ticks for Karzai and NATO, Afghanistan is preparing to mount its first-ever democratic transfer of power and select Karzai's sucessor in April.
Karzai's older brother, Qayum, former foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul and Western-leaning intellectual Ashraf Ghani all filed their candidacy for the presidential election on Sunday, the start of what is expected to be a chaotic but critical race for the palace.
The leading opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, and a former Islamist warlord turned parliamentarian, Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, registered earlier in the week. Karzai, who has ruled as interim president and then democratically elected president since 2002, is barred from running for a third term.
If widespread voter fraud mars this election as it did the last, or if a president emerges who is antagonistic to Western interests in the country, the U.S. could take Karzai up on his offer and withdraw without a deal.
“If that’s the case, the prognosis is very grim for Afghanistan,” said Biddle.
Michael Pizzi contributed reporting with wire services