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Karzai's Historical Baggage

Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
One needs to dig deep into history to understand Afghan President Hamid Karzai's reluctance to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Washington that an overwhelming majority of Afghans support.

In recent months a flood of commentary and analysis has speculated about Karzai's possible motives in dragging his feet on the pact, which would guarantee sustained training and funding for Afghan security forces and could serve as a bulwark against Al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan.

Some have argued that Karzai wants to cling to power by creating uncertainty and delaying this April’s planned presidential election. Opposition figures say that his insistence that Washington jump start peace talks with the Taliban as a precondition for signing the agreement is an attempt to manipulate the fragile political process by making impossible demands.

In his defense, Karzai supporters reject any notion that his demands are motivated by personal interests. They back Karzai in asserting that his 12 years in power has taught him that the key to peace in Afghanistan is in the hands of the United States.

In essence, say detractors, Karzai wants to blame the Western engagement for everything that went wrong in Afghanistan during his time in power.

Indeed, Karzai's nationalist rhetoric has earned him considerable support among a populace suspicious of foreigners and exhausted from unending wars in their homeland.

In fact, history weighs on Karzai's mind as he resists signing a security pact with a major power. Previous agreements inevitably led to signatory Afghan leaders being declared as puppets and national traitors.

Shah Shuja, an Afghan king in the nineteenth century, signed a treaty of alliance with the British. He was killed by Afghan guerillas after the British withdrew following their disastrous defeat in the First Anglo Afghan War (1839 -1842). He remains one of the most maligned figures in Afghan history.

Amir Mohammad Yaqub is remembered with disgust because he signed the humiliating Treaty of Gandamak with the British in 1879. The loss of Pashtun territories under the agreement made Yaqub a much-hated figure in Afghan memory.

During a recent speech Karzai hinted at how prominently history figures in his thinking. He told journalists that he recently reviewed British archival records of negotiations between Amir Abdul Rahman and the British diplomat Mortimer Durand over the demarcation of a boundary between British India and Afghanistan known as the Durand Line. Afghans have never recognized the 1893 frontier as an international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and to this day blame the Amir for trusting the British.

Karzai told journalists that Afghan leaders today cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, and emphasized that he doesn't want to leave behind a legacy of mistrust and betrayal by blindly trusting the United States.

When Karzai first came into the limelight after being chosen as the leader of an Afghan interim administration in late 2001, detractors compared him to Babrak Karmal. The Afghan communist leader owed his power to the Red Army, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979 after Karmal made an alliance with the Soviet Union to overthrow a rival communist faction.

Today Karmal symbolizes sedition and is blamed for Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan.

Karzai's paranoid interpretation of Afghan history is reinforced by his advisors and senior palace officials. Many of these powerful figures are former members of Hizb-e Islami Afghanistan. Gulbaddin Hikmatyar, the leader of this pan-Islamist faction, is still fighting Afghan and international forces from his sanctuary in Pakistan. These Ikhwani ideologues, as they are known in Afghanistan, appear to have convinced Karzai that a security pact with Washington would consign him to the dustbin of Afghan history.

The best course for the U.S. now will be to look beyond Karzai and help in holding a credible presidential election. Afghan public opinion and pragmatism will convince the next Afghan leader to sign the security agreement. Karzai's reluctance provides Washington with an opportunity to prove xenophobic interpretations of Afghan history wrong by demonstrating that it is a dependable ally of the beleaguered nation.