President Barack Obama hasn’t communicated with Afghan President Hamid Karzai since a Nov. 21 letter. And before that, the last known conversation between the two leaders dates back to a June 25 teleconference.
When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a surprise stop in Afghanistan on Saturday, aides let it be known that he had no plans to meet with Karzai.
Obama didn’t just inherit what is now America’s longest war from George W. Bush — he also inherited a troubled diplomatic relationship so frustrating that an American official once joked that Karzai’s first name should be permanently replaced with a common obscenity.
The latest problem? Karzai is refusing to sign an agreement that lays out the rules for the U.S. troop presence past the 2014 deadline for pulling out most American and NATO troops. The Obama administration has envisioned a residual force comprising some 8,000-12,000 personnel to continue training Afghan military and police and to carry out strikes on Islamist extremists.
Karzai says it should be up to Afghanistan’s next president to sign the accord. But that person won’t be chosen until April elections. U.S. officials say that unless Karzai signs this month, Washington will have to start planning for a complete withdrawal because of the difficult logistics involved (and because Americans won’t stick around unless they have immunity from local prosecution, a key component of the agreement).
Obama sent National Security Adviser Susan Rice to Kabul in late November to hammer those realities home.
“If the agreement isn’t signed promptly, what I said to the president is we would have no choice, we would be compelled by necessity, not by our preference, to have to begin to plan for the prospect that we will not be able to keep our troops here,” she told Afghanistan's Tolo TV in an interview after meeting with Karzai. “The president indicated that he is not prepared to sign the agreement promptly.”
And she flatly rebuffed his attempt to set new conditions. “The text is concluded. The negotiation is done.”
The standoff could still come to a quick end: Hagel said Saturday that Afghanistan’s defense minister assured him that the agreement will be signed in a timely manner.
But that won’t repair the Obama-Karzai relationship.
That's not to say that talking to Karzai always yields perfect outcomes. At a December 2008 press conference with Bush, the Afghan leader drew nervous laughter when he offered up this description of the relationship between Washington and Kabul:
"Afghanistan will not allow the international community leave it before we are fully on our feet, before we are strong enough to defend our country, before we are powerful enough to have a good economy, and before we have taken from President Bush and the next administration billions and billions of more dollars — no way that they can let you go."