U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul earlier this month and spent more than 24 hours with Mr. Karzai, trying to work out an agreement that would allow a modest contingent of U.S. troops to remain in the country after 2014, to continue protecting Afghans from their enemies.
The two men said they came to agreement on several important issues. But the pact remains hung up on one key point: Mr. Karzai's insistence that American servicemen accused of a crime be tried in Afghan courts. Mr. Kerry made it clear the United States will not accept that -- as it shouldn't.
Mr. Karzai already knew that. After all, the long-term military-assistance deal with Iraq foundered on exactly that point two years ago. (And look at Iraq today, consumed by the worst sectarian violence the nation has seen in years.)
But how does that disagreement make Mr. Karzai Afghanistan's greatest enemy?
First of all, he knows full well that 80 percent to 90 percent of Afghanistan's annual budget income is foreign aid from the United States and other NATO nations.
Afghanistan manufactures almost nothing of value except opium poppies, used to make 90 percent of the world's heroin. But income from that goes to drug traffickers and tithing for the Taliban. Not one dollar contributes to the budget (though government officials presumably insist on under-the-table payments from the farmers).
So when the U.S. and NATO leave and stop providing copious aid, the Afghan economy will simply collapse. There's little debate about that.
Serious as that prospect is, that's hardly the only problem. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive head of the Taliban, issued a warning last week, saying his forces will continue aggressive attacks if Western forces stay on past next year's withdrawal date. But without the security agreement, many Afghans fear the Taliban won't simply carry out terror attacks. They'll retake most of the country.
The United Nations reports that more than a half-million Afghans have already been abandoning their homes, farms, orchards or businesses in recent months. They're fleeing to the Kabul suburbs or other countries -- presumably near-certain the Taliban will return.
Just last week, Taliban assassins killed Arsallah Jamal, governor of Logar province, during services at a mosque 40 miles southeast of Kabul. He had been Mr. Karzai's campaign manager in the last election.
Despite all that, Mr. Karzai seems to be reneging on at least one point he and Kerry already agreed on.
In a radio speech last week, Karzai said "our demands" include an end to "unilateral military operations by foreign troops," a key point that was said to have been settled. The U.S. wants to maintain the authority to attack any al-Qaida sites the military may find.
As for the remaining sticking point, legal jurisdiction for American soldiers accused of crimes, Mr. Karzai told Mr. Kerry he will convene a loya jirga, an assembly of tribal elders, handpicked by Mr. Karzai, to decide that. Later, Mr. Karzai also suggested he believed the next government should decide whether to accept the agreement. It's supposed to take office in April. But the U.S. says it needs an answer by the end of this month.
What if the tribal elders or the next government insist, as Mr. Karzai has, that Americans accused of a crime be tried in Afghan courts? Mr. Kerry said he is "adamant" they be tried in U.S. courts, adding: "And Afghan leaders have a choice: Either that's the way it is, or there won't be any forces there of any kind."
And no wonder. A Transparency International survey last summer found that the police and courts are the most corrupt institutions in the state, which is already tied for last place in Transparency's larger survey of corrupt nations worldwide. The report found that 65 percent of Afghans surveyed said they'd paid a bribe to the judiciary at least once in the past year.
The Afghan government, of course rejected the report. But Azizullah Ludin, head of the state's High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, told TOLOnews, an Afghan TV station: "I can say that corruption exists in the Afghan judiciary to the extent that if someone has taken your cat, and you want to go to court to get your cat back, then you have to give up your cow for your cat."
Mr. Karzai and his carefully chosen loya jirga would be fools to reject America's offer. They would be condemning the nation and its people to a fate horrid beyond imagining.
Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.