Lonely in Kabul Karzai Faces Life - and Elections - without American Friends

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his mentors in the United States have grown apart. In an effort to pacify Afghanistan, the new administration in Washington is sending more troops to the country -- but is no longer pinning its hopes on the Afghan president.


US relations with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, seen here during the recent Munich Security Conference, have grown cold.
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US relations with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, seen here during the recent Munich Security Conference, have grown cold.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's day normally begins at 8 a.m., when he has breakfast in the presidential palace with its elegant, high ceilings, ornate mirrors and crystal chandeliers, usually with one of his deputies or an envoy from one of the provinces. On these occasions, Karzai smiles, takes his visitor's hands and exudes the attentive authority of a tribal leader.

Karzai hardly ever turns down a guest's request. In return, he expects their loyalty -- even though he is as dependent on them as he is on the Americans. Under these circumstances, disappointments are inevitable.

America and Karzai were once on the best of terms. Without the United States, Afghanistan would not have become a democracy -- albeit a very fragile one -- and Karzai would not be president. With his excellent English, optimism, elegance and gratitude, Karzai captivated America.

But that sense of harmony is now a thing of the past. Today, the relationship is characterized by disaffection and disappointment on both sides. Karzai openly criticizes the Americans, while the Americans have written him off.

Proud Friends, Not Servants

It's easy to pinpoint the exact day when Karzai and his American mentors first began to more or less openly criticize each other. In a telephone conversation with Kabul on Sept. 17, 2008, then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- at the time, the world's most powerful woman -- coolly leveled a stinging accusation at Karzai: "If you continue to criticize America, we will no longer cooperate with you." Karzai's response was proud and defiant: "I will not be silent, and I will not stop promoting the interests of my people and their children."

That is Kabul's version, at least, of the September telephone call.

Karzai received the ungracious call because he had once again accused American troops of insensitivity toward Afghan civilians. This time he was referring to a bombing attack on the northwestern town of Azizabad. The Afghans said 90 civilians died; the Americans insist it was seven.

After the call, Karzai called together a group of his closest associates and reportedly told them: "These Americans do not understand that, although we are their friends, we are not their servants. They want to treat us like colonized generals. They don't understand that we are a proud nation. I would rather die honorably than be their powerless vassal." It was a turning point in the relationship between the protective power and its protégé.

Now, the new administration in Washington is turning its back on Karzai, which makes it significantly more difficult for him to govern. Last Wednesday, Taliban fighters launched an attack in downtown Kabul. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the entrance to the Ministry of Justice, not far from the presidential palace. Meanwhile, other extremists stormed the back entrance, killing kitchen staff, security guards and ministry officials. Nineteen civilians died, as did the eight attackers; at least 54 people were wounded. The battles between terrorists and police lasted hours. At the same time, other Taliban fighters attacked the prison administration in northern Kabul and the Ministry of Education.

The Taliban's message was clear: We are everywhere and we will attack everywhere. You aren't safe anywhere -- not even in Kabul and not even if you do have the more powerful army. This is the graveyard of empires; and you, too, will fail.

Avoiding 'Obama's Vietnam '

There are currently 33,000 US troops in Afghanistan, and President Barack Obama plans to send an additional 30,000 to the country. This commitment sends the message that the United States is serious about Afghanistan and willing to make a great effort -- and pay a high price -- for success. The next few months will be decisive in determining what happens to this country, which has suffered through 30 years of invasions and wars.

Afghan security forces try to secure the site of the Afghan Ministry of Justice in Kabul following a Feb. 10 attack by Taliban forces.

Afghan security forces try to secure the site of the Afghan Ministry of Justice in Kabul following a Feb. 10 attack by Taliban forces.

The Obama administration is anxious not to let itself be sucked in by the dark maelstrom that is Afghanistan. As Newsweek has written, Afghanistan is "Obama's Vietnam." In other words, just as former President Lyndon B. Johnson once did in Vietnam, the president is now attempting to gain control over the country by sending in more troops. And if that doesn't work, America will throw in the towel and bring its soldiers home.

Two men now bear principal responsibility for Afghanistan, and Obama has confidence in both of them: National Security Adviser James Jones, a retired general and former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe; and David Petraeus, the general who brought a certain degree of stability to Iraq and is now being asked to perform a small miracle in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the White House has lost all confidence in the Afghan president. "Karzai should retire," an American diplomat said at the recent Munich Security Conference. Dennis Blair, Obama's new director of national intelligence, said bluntly that the Afghan government is weak, corrupt and incapable of stopping the Taliban's offensive.

"The government is internally divided and it has never arrested any major drug lords," Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan has complained. Holbrooke arrived in Kabul last Thursday on his first trip to the Afghan capital in his new position. In the end, he did make a joint appearance with Karzai at a press conference, where they announced plans to cooperate in the fight against corruption.

Playing by Different Rules

Karzai's appearances abroad are more impressive than his governing at home. Hardly anyone will accuse him of trying to enrich himself. But it's been an open secret in Kabul for a long time that his family -- and especially his brother, Ahmed Wali -- has used connections to the palace to engage in shady business dealings.

Karzai is a conservative, devout man who is deeply rooted in the loyalties of his tribal society. He doesn't drink alcohol; he prays five times a day; and he keeps his wife, a physician, out of the public eye. He has been seeking reconciliation with the Taliban and wants to include those who renounce al-Qaida in his government. He is not troubled by the fact that the Taliban despises independent courts and wants to introduce traditional Islamic Sharia law as the only valid law. "Afghanistan is an Islamic republic," Karzai explains, "which is why there are no problems whatsoever with that."

Many decisions that are made in Afghanistan are hard to reconcile with Western standards. Until December 2005, for example, Helmand province, which is a center of the drug trade and one of the country's largest provinces, was run by a governor named Sher Mohammed Akhundzada. He was a known opium smuggler -- and a friend of the president.

According to Karzai, when Akhundzada was governor, children were able to go to school, opium production was only a third of what it is today, and the governor was -- to a certain degree -- in control of the province.

In response to pressure from the international community, and especially from Britain, Akhundzada's property was searched one day. Nine tons of opium were found; the governor was replaced.

Today, Helmand is a nightmare. The Taliban and the drug barons control most of the province. The Taliban has burned down schools. The drug warlords and gangs of kidnappers have joined forces with al-Qaida, and Taliban fighters are now threatening both the government in Kabul and Western troops. Karzai blames the West -- and particularly the British.

Helmand was also a turning point in the process of estrangement between the president and his allies, who are now making sure that he knows just how much he depends on them. But this could have unintended consequences.

Potential Replacements

Afghanistan is scheduled to hold a presidential election in August. When Holbrooke was asked whether the Obama administration would even support Karzai in that election, he replied: "There are plenty of qualified, impressive Afghans in the country."

Holbrooke's "plenty" might be an exaggeration, but there are some for sure. One of them is former Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali, 68, who worked for the Voice of America radio station for 20 years and has strong ties to Washington's conservative community. Since he resigned as interior minister after quarrelling with Karzai, Jalali has distinguished himself as a reformer in the fight against corruption -- but he claims the president has blocked his efforts.

Ashraf Ghani also has ambitions for the presidency. Like Jalali, Ghani has a US passport. He was an adviser to the World Bank and later served as finance minister in Karzai's cabinet. But Ghani himself is suspected of corruption.

Another potential candidate, the governor of the eastern province of Nangahar, is a former mujahideen commander. He aims to fight the drug industry -- and is said to be doing a good job of it. But there are also rumors that he actually made his fortune in the opium trade.

Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a skilled organizer and good manager, is favored by some Western allies.

And Karzai? He is probably waiting to see if an alternative -- who is either openly or secretly supported by the West -- emerges from the pack. As one of his supporters puts it: The Afghans are proud, and they value a good fight.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


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