Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is doubtful that Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Washington, as years of wrangling with Washington have lead Karzai to conclude that the U.S. wants to keep him weak.
Neumann spoke with RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Farishta Jalalzai on the issues surrounding the BSA and the importance of the country’s forthcoming elections for future stability.
RFE/RL: As a former U.S. diplomat you know Afghan President Hamid Karzai firsthand. Why do you think he is reluctant to sign the BSA?
Ronald Neumann: The Americans have handled President Karzai very badly. We have acted toward him in ways in which no Afghan would act to another Afghan if you were a friend, and this has gone on for many years. And so President Karzai has asked himself, 'Why are you doing this to me,' and he has answered that question in his own mind -- he thinks the Americans want to keep him weak in order to keep bases in Afghanistan for our soldiers.
I think I understand why he believes this, but he is wrong. There is no desire among the Americans to keep bases in Afghanistan. America is tired of the war. They have a commitment that President [Barack] Obama says he will keep, but there is no big desire in American policy to have bases in Afghanistan.
There are only two explanations for the way the Americans treated President Karzai. One is that they want to keep him weak. That is [Karzai’s] understanding. The other explanation is that Americans don’t really understand Afghanistan, and so they do things which are natural to Americans but very stupid when you do them in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Afghans generally do not believe that America can act without understanding -- they don't like to believe that America can be stupid.
I think President Karzai feels that the Americans have not always kept their agreements and he wants new terms. And probably he wants to prove that he is a real patriot of Afghanistan -- not just a foreign puppet.
RFE/RL: Do you think Presidents Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai are going to eventually sign the BSA?
Neumann: Americans are clearly ready to sign. President Karzai is not ready to sign. Personally, I think Karzai will probably not sign it before the elections. The problem is actually fairly simple, but the American government is, I think, making it sound more complicated than it is because they would like to get it signed earlier rather than later. I believe that at the end of the day it will be signed but that it might be some months before that happens.
RFE/RL: So you think that the BSA will be signed by the next Afghan government?
Neumann: Inshallah! I don’t think there is any problem with getting it signed with the next government. I think the problem is one of timing because the elections may be delayed. There will be the first round of elections in April. Then there may be an argument about the votes and probably a second round of the election, and that has to be organized, and then again you may well have an argument about the vote counting. So it could be October or November before there is a new president in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: What are the possible downsides of a delay in signing the BSA?
Neumann: There are actually two downsides. There is very little time to finish the American agreement. American troops could actually stay under their current agreements, which do not have an expiration date if both sides agree. But the NATO troops have a separate agreement. The NATO agreement concludes at the end of 2014, and is connected to a United Nations Security Council resolution.
So the original idea was that the American agreement would be signed first and then the NATO agreement would be signed. With the two agreements signed, the NATO forces and the Americans would continue the new mission after 2014. There could be a problem of getting the NATO agreement done and they will have to pull their troops out.
RFE/RL: How does all this affect Afghanistan’s politics, the presidential election and beyond?
Neumann: The lack of certainty on the BSA makes everybody in Afghanistan more uncertain. It makes people look at how they can protect themselves -- whether by appointing people who they trust, even if they are not good people, or trying to take more money out of the country, or whether they don’t invest money and create jobs. All these things are negative.
RFE/RL: Many observers see a civil war as a major concern for Afghanistan's immediate future. What is your assessment?
Neumann: It is a very real concern. If the election goes reasonably well -- by that I mean first of all, if people vote in larger numbers that will send a signal to the world that Afghanistan is changing -- it is worth protecting [from disintegration]. If the election is somewhat honest, I don’t ask that it be perfect, but I think it is enormously important that the Afghan people believe that the next president has really been chosen by a majority of Afghans.
The election is very important because if the next president has legitimacy, then he will get more support from outside. More people in the NATO community will be willing to support him. He will have a stronger political position, either to fight or talk with the Taliban. He will have a stronger position with Pakistan.
While it is understandable that everybody is nervous, I think it is important for Afghans to understand that part of a better future is in Afghan hands, not just foreign.