Karzai puts Obama in diplomatic dilemma

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is putting President Obama's diplomatic poker skills to the test as Karzai defies the White House’s demands he sign a long-term security pact.

The White House has threatened to withdraw all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan if Karzai doesn’t sign the agreement this year, and Obama dispatched National Security Adviser Susan Rice for a personal meeting Monday to deliver the message.

But Karzai did not budge at the ultimatum, insisting that he wait until after the Afghan presidential elections next spring before the agreement is signed. Karzai also added new demands he wants met before signing an agreement the U.S. believed to be finalized.

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The dispute presents the Obama administration with a challenging high-stakes stand off as it weighs how to respond to the difficult Afghan leader.

Now both sides are betting the other will back down in the latest showdown that threatens the long-term future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“When it comes to Karzai, we’re kidding ourselves if we thought this would be smooth,” said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “We’ve got to recognize that when we come off as desperate, Karzai is going to take advantage.”

An agreement for U.S. forces after 2014 appeared to be at hand last week, when Secretary of State John Kerry announced the final details had been finalized, such as a U.S. pledge not to enter Afghan homes except in extraordinary circumstances.

But Karzai, who is term-limited and can’t run in next year’s presidential elections, quickly wanted to re-open the negotiations. He said at a meeting of elders and leaders known as a Loya Jirga that he did not intend to sign the pact until after the elections in the spring.

The Loya Jirga voted to approve the agreement and urged Karzai to sign soon, but he still refused, laying out new demands. They included stopping U.S. forces from entering Afghan homes under any circumstances, restarting the peace process with the Taliban and the release of all Afghan detainees at Guantánamo Bay to Afghanistan.

The Obama administration says if Karzai does not sign the agreement before the end of the year, it will have “no choice” but to plan for withdrawing all troops in 2014 because it won’t have time to properly plan for a post-2014 scenario.

After her meeting with Karzai, Rice said in an interview with Afghanistan’s Tolo TV that the negotiations would not be re-opened.

“The text is concluded. The negotiation is done,” she said. “It was almost as if he was hoping that the goal of our partnership, the goal of the partnership which is peace and security and development and prosperity, could be achieved prior in some way to the conclusion of the Bilateral Security Agreement.”

The U.S. threat of removing all troops from Afghanistan draws comparisons to the U.S. negotiations at the end of the Iraq War, where a dispute over troop immunity prompted a full U.S. withdrawal in 2011.

“Those who contend such a ‘zero option’ outcome is impossible need only look to the rapid and complete U.S. exit from Iraq at the end of 2011,” retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, wrote last week.

There are significant risks for both sides should they fail to come to an agreement on the security pact.

The United States also does not want to completely abandon Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. A full withdrawal would threaten the gains achieved since the Taliban were removed from power a decade ago.

"It would be deeply embarrassing to see Afghanistan go into a state of sheer and utter collapse after we’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars there," Rubin said.

For Karzai, the loss of U.S. and NATO troops would also lead to the loss of $8 billion in foreign aid to Afghanistan, which could destabilize the country and risk descending back into civil war or allowing the Taliban to regain power.

Karzai did appear to soften his stance somewhat Wednesday, saying that Rice’s assurances the U.S. would allow free and fair elections were sufficient for him. He still maintained his other demands, however.

Defense analysts say Karzai is likely motivated by a desire to avoid becoming a lame-duck president and to maintain some leverage with the U.S. ahead of next year’s elections.

While Karzai appears isolated in his stance against signing, several analysts have suggested that the U.S. should not rashly abandon Afghanistan even if Karzai isn’t bluffing.

“It is much more convenient to make a firm plan now,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But we have already shown repeatedly we can get 30,000 troops into or out of Afghanistan over a given six month window, so some uncertainty about whether the last 10,000 are staying can be tolerated into the summer.”

The bilateral agreement does not lay out how many troops would stay in the country after the Afghans are given control of security at the end of 2014, but NATO has said between 8,000-to-12,000 would likely remain. The U.S. is drawing down to 34,000 troops by early next year.

Despite the U.S. desire to lock in a post-2014 agreement, O’Hanlon argued that Karzai could actually be helping the U.S. by waiting for his successor to sign the agreement.

“If that’s what happens, he indirectly and perhaps unintentionally but still usefully reinforces his commitment to the elections and strengthens Afghan democracy by giving the next leader ownership of a hugely important decision that will be hugely popular within Afghanistan,” O’Hanlon said.

“So we can stay cool and calm about this, I believe.”