KABUL, Afghanistan — Hamid Karzai was in the midst of negotiating a security agreement with the United States when he met a 4-year-old girl who lost half her face in an American airstrike.
Five months later, the Afghan president’s eyes welled with tears as he described visiting the disfigured little girl at a hospital. He took long pauses between words. Sitting behind his desk Saturday night, the man who has projected a defiant image toward the West suddenly looked frail.
“That day, I wished she were dead, so she could be buried with her parents and brothers and sisters” — 14 of whom had been killed in the attack — he said.
In an unusually emotional interview, the departing Afghan president sought to explain why he has been such a harsh critic of the 12-year-old U.S. war effort here. He said he’s deeply troubled by all the casualties he has seen, including those in U.S. military operations. He feels betrayed by what he calls an insufficient U.S. focus on targeting Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. And he insists that public criticism was the only way to guarantee an American response to his concerns.
To Karzai, the war was not waged with his country’s interests in mind.
“Afghans died in a war that’s not ours,’ he said in the interview, his first in two years with a U.S. newspaper.
In Karzai’s mind, al-Qaida is “more a myth than a reality” and the majority of the United States’ prisoners here were innocent. He’s certain that the war was “for the U.S. security and for the Western interest.”
Such statements elicit scorn and shock from U.S. officials, who point out that Americans have sacrificed mightily for Afghanistan — losing more than 2,000 lives and spending more than $600 billion in the effort to defeat al-Qaida and the Taliban and rebuild the country.
Some Americans call Karzai a delusional leader, an ally who became an adversary during the 12 years of his presidency.
Security pact problem
In the latest blowup, he has refused for months to sign a security agreement that his government had negotiated with the United States that would permit a residual U.S. force to remain here beyond 2014. He has added several new demands in exchange for signing the deal.
But in a phone call with Karzai last week, President Barack Obama said he will accept having the winner of Afghanistan’s April presidential elections sign the pact. Karzai indicated that he views that as a best-case scenario. He won’t have to submit to U.S. demands — such as the continuation of counterterrorism operations — but the popular security agreement will probably still be finalized.
“It’s good for them to sign it with my successor,” the Afghan leader said.
On the security agreement, as with several other issues, Karzai’s antagonistic approach seems to have actually succeeded, in the sense that he has forced U.S. officials to move deadlines — and even to reshape policy.
His strong criticism of the civilian casualties caused by American attacks, for example, forced the U.S. military to revise its tactics, producing a dramatic decline in the number of noncombatants killed by American forces (although Taliban-inflicted casualties have increased).
His demands that the United States hand over the Bagram prison were eventually met, allowing Karzai last month to release dozens of high-profile detainees despite U.S. protests. Those experiences reaffirmed his conviction that public criticism of the United States is often his most effective diplomatic tool.
“I had no other weapon to resort to, no other means to resort to, but to speak publicly and get attention that way. In other words, I was forced to yell,” he said.
Karzai reiterated that he will not manipulate the April 5 presidential election. He has told his older brother to withdraw his candidacy to avoid the perception of interference. Qayum Karzai has refused, but he acknowledges what most Afghans believe:
“Without the president’s support, it will be impossible to win,” Qayum said.
Every day, candidates and elders plead for Hamid Karzai’s backing, pouring into his office and calling his aides as the election nears. Although his influence on the U.S. war effort is waning, he has never been more relevant, or at least more talked about, in Afghan political circles.
“People do come to me, a lot of people, every day rather. Groups of people, individuals — they ask me” for support, Karzai said.
Some of them ask him to remain in office, he said, but he dismisses the idea.
“I’ve done enough; it’s time for me to move on,” Karzai said.
Now that he has decided to leave office, he is reckoning with the same question that many Americans are asking: Was the war worth it?
“I am of two hearts here. When I see good, I am in approval. When I see the losses of Afghan people, our children, maimed and killed, I’m in disapproval,” he said, speaking in English. “Maybe I can give you an answer of yes or no two, three or five years from now, when my emotions have subsided. Right now, I’m full of emotions.”
Karzai is at his most emotional — and most hostile — when civilian casualties occur. Even his critics don’t doubt the sincerity of his feelings, although they might disagree with his conclusions.
He said Afghanistan’s “common cause” with the United States dissipated because of such casualties. He has also said that U.S. forces should have done more to target Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, rather than conduct operations in Afghan villages.
Karzai denied that he’s more vocal about U.S.-inflicted civilian casualties than those caused by the Taliban. But he has done little to dispel that characterization.
During a visit to the White House in 2010, he carried a photo of what he described as a family whose members were “just gazing with fright and fear” during a U.S.-led night operation. He showed it to Obama.
“I said, ‘President, this is what I’m trying to end, the intimidation of Afghan families at night, in the name of fighting the Taliban.’”
Asked about Obama’s response, Karzai shrugged, indicating it was unsatisfactory. Then he said: “So we are really an angry people.”
Inability to govern
One criticism of Karzai is that his anger has interfered with his ability to govern a country whose institutions have grown exponentially since he took office. Thanks largely to the U.S. effort, Afghanistan now has a large security force and bureaucracy.
As U.S. funding tapers off, Karzai’s successor will have to keep those institutions alive on a much slimmer budget.
“Foreign assistance brought an expensive way of life to Afghanistan,” Karzai said. “This way of life is not sustainable. Afghanistan has to live by its means.”
Specifically, that means a smaller army built based on “efficiency and affordability,” Karzai said.
But without foreign funding, it’s unclear whether Afghanistan could afford an army that could keep the Taliban at bay. Maintaining Afghan forces at their current size will cost about $4 billion per year. In 2013, the Afghan government collected only $1.7 billion in revenue.
After leaving office, Karzai won’t go far: The government built him a house a few miles from the presidential palace.
But before he steps down, Karzai has a few more messages to convey to his American partners. As he escorted two Washington Post journalists out of his office Saturday, he said: “To the American people, give them my best wishes and my gratitude. To the U.S. government, give them my anger, my extreme anger.”