As of last weekend, the much-anticipated security pact governing the future of American troops in Afghanistan looked good to go. Days after Secretary of State John Kerry triumphantly announced agreement on the final language, a convention of Afghanistan's 2,500 tribal elders gave their approval.
Yet there was one last-minute — and surprising — roadblock after more than a year of tough negotiations over the post-2014 partnership between the two nations: Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Now members of Congress, increasingly frustrated with this sometimes-vexing ally, are firing back.
"That agreement needs to be signed as soon as possible," House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., told National Journal Daily. The U.S.-led coalition was expected to leave a follow-on force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan after the combat mission formally ends in 2014 — but senior U.S. officials stress the agreement must be signed by year-end to prepare for that mission. "There's a lead time here," Smith said. "It's not like we can wait until the absolute last minute and decide to stay."
Karzai wants to sign the agreement only after his successor is elected in April, and he has added new demands, including for the U.S. to release Afghans held at Guantanamo Bay. "I don't know that people anticipated, with the loya jirga [grand council] having approved it and Karzai's Cabinet being in favor of it, that Karzai would turn out to be the biggest obstacle," said House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Referring to Karzai, House Armed Services Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry, R"‘Texas, quipped: "I don't know what's going on with him."
"I think that [his] volatility is part of the problem," Thornberry added. "Reports that I read are that the Afghans themselves are getting fed up with it.... The best outcome here is for the Afghans to say, "˜We can't continue this; we need to sign the agreement and know what's ahead for our country.' " The longer the uncertainty continues, he said, the more likely local leaders will hedge their bets and side with the Taliban.
"His ability to kind of act out or be difficult to deal with never surprises us," said Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa. "But I don't think we should overanalyze what he says sometimes, because obviously he's dealing with his own political or domestic circumstances. I think the most important thing is to just keep pushing to get an agreement ... do everything we can to make sure the sacrifices our fighting men and women and our taxpayers made are going to be validated."
Some Republicans feel it's time for President Obama to become more directly involved. "The president didn't engage in a way that allowed America and Iraq to cut a deal to provide for the stability of that country, and we see the consequences of that now," said an aide to the House Armed Services Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif. "It's crucial in the chairman's mind that the president weigh in and not wait until the last minute, until the clock runs out, and walk away," the aide said.
Some members were sensitive to Karzai's predicament. "Karzai is looking ahead to his legacy and his survival once he leaves office — I think both literally and figuratively," Schiff said. "What the Afghans prize most in their leaders is standing up to foreign occupiers, and I think this is his way of leaving a lasting impression of defiance, even of his allies."
Schiff cautioned that Karzai is making the wrong bet, considering the general attitude Americans have toward the Afghan war. "It underestimates the degree to which the American public would embrace the zero option," he said.
There is "little appetite from the American public for putting our troops at risk for another indefinite period of time," Schiff said, "and little enthusiasm for spending additional billions of dollars in Afghanistan when a lot of that money leaves the country in suitcases of cash. So I think it's a very ill-considered gamble."