The Karzai enigma

The Obama administration is understandably frustrated by its efforts to forge an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that would allow a scaled-down U.S. troop presence to remain in the country after most American and NATO forces leave next year. Last week the U.S. believed it had finally reached a deal to that effect with Mr. Karzai, only to have the Afghan leader balk at the last minute, insisting he won't sign anything until the U.S. acceded to a new series of demands that the Americans thought had already been settled.

This is a classic Karzai tactic that's been the bane of American negotiators for years. But having spent much blood and treasure in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and prevent their return to power, the U.S. has too much at stake there to simply walk away in a huff.


President Obama promptly dispatched National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice to Kabul to lay down the law to Afghanistan's mercurial leader: Go through with plan as agreed or the U.S. will have "no choice" but to start preparing for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2014.

Those were bold words, and if they were intended to signal the administration's anger over being trifled with, the Afghan public certainly got the message even if Mr. Karzai didn't. Afghan politicians are openly questioning their president's judgment, and even the loya jirga, or traditional council of elders, that Mr. Karzai convened in Kabul to advise him is urging prompt agreement to the American terms.


Given that most Afghans fear their country's fledgling security forces would quickly collapse if forced to fight the Taliban on their own, many of them are now as puzzled by the convoluted twists and turns of their leader's thought processes as is the U.S. To call Mr. Karzai erratic, unstable and often unreliable is to put it mildly. He possesses the kind of outsized ego and limitless self-regard that demands adulation on a global stage. Yet he can be almost childlike in his dependence on those he considers peers — former President George W. Bush had to call Mr. Karzai by telephone nearly every week to buck up his spirits.

Mr. Karzai also has a prodigious tolerance for the massive corruption among Afghan government officials and little compunction against tampering with ballot boxes or rigging elections to favor his political cronies. He is sentimental to the point of being maudlin, but also ruthless, devious and utterly unscrupulous in dealing with rivals.

He's also said to often feel depressed, angry or unhappy, but those moods alternate with equally intense episodes of reckless euphoria and manic energy. If he were not the president of country at war his bizarre behavior might easily be interpreted as symptomatic of a man suffering from a serious mental imbalance.

Yet this is the leader the Obama administration must now work with to secure a future for Afghanistan free of the religious fanaticism and brutal excesses of the Taliban. He is by no means the perfect partner, but for the moment, at least, he's the best we have and we must make the most of the situation.

Ironically, Mr. Karzai's own maddening unpredictability as a leader may also have presented the U.S. with an opportunity to advance its goals in the region. The local elders who make up the loya jirga Mr. Karzai convened in Kabul technically play only an advisory role in the country's government, but they do represent a significant slice of Afghan public opinion. The fact that they are urging the U.S. to stay past the 2014 deadline should reassure the administration that ordinary Afghans neither hate all Americans nor oppose a limited U.S. military presence in their country after next year. Rather than quibble with Mr. Karzai, the administration needs to capitalize on that popular sentiment by taking its case directly to the Afghan people.

Perhaps it would be too clever by half to suggest that was exactly what Mr. Karzai had in mind when he unexpectedly provoked the administration into threatening a complete U.S. withdrawal. That would make him sound crazy like a fox rather than just completely bonkers. Either way, however, the reality is that the U.S. has too much invested in preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven for it to actually carry out such a threat — and Mr. Karzai, flawed though may be, knows it.