So what is he really thinking? When Karzai speaks, what should America hear?
Over the past month, I have talked with several of Karzai’s current and former aides about his views on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. They describe a president whose personality and political convictions have become fundamentally opposed to the American approach. His rhetoric is not simply a stunt for Afghan domestic consumption, or to show that he is no puppet president, as U.S. officials sometimes suggest. It is a product of a deep-seated aversion to violence and an unshakable suspicion about U.S. motives in Afghanistan.
For much of his second term, Karzai has been consistent in his belief that American troops are creating more problems than solutions in the war against the Taliban. The latest outrages — the viral video that apparently depicts Marines desecrating corpses, the burning of Korans by U.S. service members, the civilian casualties in Kandahar province — have reinforced his argument that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is counterproductive. His demand that NATO forces stay out of Afghan villages and withdraw onto large bases follows a litany of earlier orders: the cessation of NATO airstrikes, Special Operations night raids and home searches; the abolishment of private security companies, NATO’s provincial reconstruction teams and American-run prisons.
The roots of Karzai’s views are as long as the war, but the confrontation with the United States intensified during his 2009 reelection campaign, a period one aide described as the “wound that never healed.” Palace officials say Karzai became convinced that the Obama administration actively sought to engineer his defeat. When he prevailed, they say, he saw the new American focus on fighting Afghan government corruption as another way to discredit him. If palace aides brought him advice that he considered too pro-American, they recalled, he sometimes dismissed it as the manipulations of the “yellow building,” as he called the U.S. Embassy down the road.
“The president decided he would give the Americans a hard time, the way they had done to him,” said one former palace official. “In his mind, he did choose one, two, three, four important issues where he could press the Americans. And that was the civilian casualties, that was the detention centers, that was the private security companies and the night raids.”