President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is not taken very seriously in the United States - not by the government, the media, or the general public. One good piece of evidence: On Dec. 10, he gave a long interview to Le Monde that the journal published in full both in the original English and a French translation, and this quite detailed interview merited only one quote (of less than one sentence) in The New York Times.
This is all the more remarkable in that Karzai makes some very strong statements, quite at variance with what one reads in the American press. It is as though everyone assumes that Karzai's statements are foolish or wrong-headed or inconsequential or mere negotiating tactics. No one seems to entertain the possibility that U.S. government statements can be foolish or wrong-headed or inconsequential or mere negotiating tactics.
At the very least, Americans (as well as all others) ought to read carefully what Karzai is saying. He starts the interview by insisting that he has been arguing for the past eight years that "the war on terror can't be fought and must not be fought in Afghan villages, in Afghan homes. If there is a war on terror, it has to be taken to the terrorist sanctuaries [presumably in Pakistan], where they are trained and nurtured."
He says this is the main problem, but a second problem is his belief that the United States is not making "a visible and genuine effort" to help with the peace process. Karzai insists that he has been in contact with the Taliban and that they are ready to negotiate "officially" with the High Peace Council (HPC) that Karzai created.
Karzai charges that "certain forces in the West" do not want such negotiations. Instead, "they tried to ethnicize the conflicts in arranged talks between warlords and ethnic groups. ...We are convinced that a deliberate effort was made to weaken Afghanistan and to turn it into fiefdoms [with] a weak central government."
Karzai asserted that he would be willing to sign immediately the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States and NATO once he has "assurances" from the United States of an end to attacks on Afghan homes and of U.S. support for launching the peace effort.
The reporter asked if Karzai considered the United States an adversary. Karzai responded that "attacking Afghan homes is an act of aggression" — not the proper behavior of an ally. He asks if the United States would launch drones at home in pursuit of a terrorist. Why then does it think it may be done in Afghanistan? "Do they feel an Afghan life is worth less than an American life? ... We are not less worthy."
Karzai accuses the United States of launching a "psychological war" that encourages companies to leave Afghanistan and frightens Afghans about the consequences of withdrawal of foreign troops. To the reporter's question whether Karzai believes that the United States is acting like a colonial power, he responds "absolutely."
The United States government seems determined to keep some troops in Afghanistan, but had seemed equally determined to do so with a BSA signed before the end of December. The United States does not seem, however, ready to meet Karzai's two preconditions. What then will they do? On December 3, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested publicly a solution that is probably of dubious legality. He said someone must sign the BSA, but not necessarily the president. A signature by the Minister of Defense, presumably more ready to agree to U.S. terms, would do. It would suffice that "somebody ... accept responsibility" for the agreement.
Who will give in at the very last minute? Actually, Karzai has won in the very short run. On Dec. 11, the U.S. State Department's top Afghanistan official James F. Dobbins announced that Dec. 31 was no longer a hard deadline. The BSA should be signed, he said, "as soon as possible." The outcome is unclear at this point, although I suspect that the United States has the stronger hand at this time. But in the longer run, is this not another case of shooting oneself in the foot? As Karzai insists: "If the USA wants to be our ally, they have to be a respectful ally." It seems to be quite hard for a superpower, particularly one in serious decline, to learn how to respect allies.