Afghanistan's President: Partner Or Obstacle?

Relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international coalition seeking to secure and rebuild his country are rocky these days. But some Karzai critics say it's not just the president who is to blame for why things have turned sour.

Relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international coalition seeking to secure and rebuild his country are rocky these days, with both Afghans and Westerners questioning whether Karzai is a partner or a liability.

The visit to Kabul two weeks ago by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised eyebrows both in the country and abroad, as did the fact that Karzai stayed quiet as his guest railed at U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had left Kabul just hours earlier.

At a joint news conference at his presidential palace, Karzai called the Iranian president "brother" and said Afghans were lucky he had come. But some Afghans felt Karzai had crossed a dangerous line.

"I think he has been on this confrontational course with the West, particularly the United States, since last year," said Haroun Mir, who heads the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Mir, like many Afghans, was uncomfortable about Ahmadinejad's visit, given that it happened at the same time the Obama administration was seeking international support for stronger sanctions against Iran.

"This could not be explained in a rational manner because the United States is our strategic ally and we are dependent on the United States for everything — for the salary of our civil servants for our security, for our survival," Mir said. "We could not find any explanation why President Karzai did not react when Ahmadinejad gave this kind of controversial and provocative speech here in Kabul."

Other Sources Of Friction

Ahmadinejad's ill-timed visit is not the only thing testing Western patience with Karzai. Tensions between the Afghan president and his allies have been high since last year's fraud-ridden presidential election. They put much pressure on Karzai to get him to agree to a runoff last November. There were rare rebukes when he subsequently yanked control of the electoral complaints commission away from the United Nations.

Karzai's increasing overtures to militants — like his recent meeting with a top Hizb-i-Islami delegation — have some fearing he might declare a unilateral cease-fire. His reluctance to hand more power to provincial and district leaders to improve local governance and services also rankles, as do recent presidential decrees that make it difficult for foreign citizens to stay and work in Afghanistan or move about.

Karzai officials describe the friction as part of a "normal partnership," one that's maturing as the Afghan government gains experience and power. Karzai's chief spokesman, Waheed Omar, says the country has come a long way since 2001-02, when there was no government and no institutions.

"We were more of a receiver on the receiver end, but we hope that it's now evolved into more of a partnership where both sides are equal partners," Omar said. "There have been turbulent times, there have been election times and there have been uneasy times, but for the president it's all part of this process."

Domestic Political Factors

Some experts say Karzai's actions are his way of dealing with an evolving Western strategy that is more about timelines than results.

The president also owes favors to Afghan power brokers who supported him during the elections. Many of those are former warlords whom Afghans and Westerners find unsavory, says Candace Rondeaux, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

"Karzai now feels that all bets are off," Rondeaux said. "He doesn't really have many friends anywhere he turns, and that means he's got to find ways very quickly to consolidate his power."

But the problem isn't just Karzai, says parliament member Shukria Barakzai, who blames the U.S. and other allies for focusing on building relationships with individuals like Karzai instead of strengthening the Afghan government and its institutions.

"Even, I'm sure, if Barack Obama will be the president of Afghanistan, it will be very difficult for him to find a solution for today's crisis in Afghanistan," she said.

Western diplomats say they are trying to change their approach.

"Our engagement is long-term," said Annie Pforzheimer, political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "We didn't give up Western Europe or Korea two years after their war was over. We stayed. And all of these institutions that we're trying to build we need to build over the long term."

That's good news for the Afghan president, who says he wants American help with security and development for at least another 15 years. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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