US-Afghan ties so discordant, even vow to sign security deal hits a sour note

President Hamid Karzai gave assurances last weekend that Afghanistan would sign a security deal that the US has long sought. But he chose to tell Germany's foreign minister first.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers stand at the Bagram detainee center gate north of Kabul, February 13, 2014. The Afghan government released 65 prisoners – some of whom the US says have killed American and other Western Coalition forces – but who President Hamid Karzai insists are of no threat.

In a further sign of just how far relations have deteriorated between President Hamid Karzai and the United States, the Afghan leader is letting it be known his country plans to sign a security deal with the US – he apparently just can’t bring himself to have the Americans be the first to know.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced to the Bundestag Thursday that Mr. Karzai assured him during a weekend meeting in Kabul that the security agreement for a post-2014 American military presence in Afghanistan will go into effect.

“I was pleased that Karzai said very clearly that Afghanistan would in any case sign” the accord, Mr. Steinmeier told the lower house of the German Parliament.

The German minister’s words did not seem to suggest any assurance from Karzai that he himself would sign the deal. Afghanistan holds presidential elections in April – the first time Afghans will elect someone other than Karzai to the presidency since the Taliban were deposed in 2001. Karzai is barred from seeking another term.

The German assurances were muffled, however, by other Afghan actions that seemed to take US-Afghan relations closer to the breaking point. On Thursday Afghan authorities followed through on the release of dozens of prisoners the US considers are dangerous militants.

The US-Afghan security accord would pave the way for other Western forces to join the Americans in remaining in Afghanistan after NATO completes its 13-year-old mission at the end of the year.

The Obama administration has been waiting for months for Karzai to make a decision on the security accord. In his State of the Union address last month President Obama said the US is still prepared to leave a small force of American troops in Afghanistan after December with the “limited” mission of additional training of Afghan security forces and counterterrorism operations.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that the US was unlikely to ever get a nod from Karzai on the deal.

“I don’t believe President Karzai is going to sign it,” he said.

Obama has not said how many troops he would leave in Afghanistan under the post-NATO arrangement. But it would almost certainly be less than a third of the approximately 37,000 US forces remaining there today, US policy experts say.

Karzai has held back on signing the security pact as a way of showing his frustration with the US on a range of issues, from civilian casualties in the war and on-and-off peace negotiations with the Taliban to US-Pakistan relations.

The bilateral bad blood ran again Thursday when Afghanistan released 65 prisoners – some of whom the US says have killed American and other Western Coalition forces – but who Karzai insists are of no threat.

On a visit to Turkey Thursday, Karzai said the prisoner release “is of no concern to the US” and said American pressures over such actions indicate how the US continues to disregard Afghan sovereignty.

The US should “stop harassing” Afghan officials over their exercise of authority over domestic matters, he said.

That posture seems certain to further infuriate US lawmakers who already had jumped on the planned prisoner release as a bridge too far that would result in a harsh US reaction if carried out.

A bipartisan group of senators is suggesting Karzai could be jeopardizing ongoing US assistance with what are increasingly viewed as anti-American actions.

“President Karzai, in my view, is single-handedly destroying this relationship,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said at an Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. A longtime supporter of US policy in Afghanistan, Senator Graham said that if the prisoner release was carried out, the US should suspend all aid to Afghanistan at least until the country elects a successor to Karzai.

Graham pledged to develop a bipartisan plan to “push back as hard as possible” against Karzai.

Some Democrats suggest they may be on board.

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan accused Karzai of poisoning relations to such an extent that the American public – already long since tired of the war and supportive of a pullout of US forces – could turn against any US role in Afghanistan.

After recent deadly Taliban attacks in Kabul, Karzai suggested the US might be aiding the Taliban in carrying out such high-profile operations as a way of ensuring that Afghanistan opts to keep foreign troops on its soil.

 Karzai “has made a series of statements so inflammatory,” Levin said, “that they are undermining public support in the United States for continuing efforts in Afghanistan.”

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