Afghanistan's interim president, Hamid Karzai, is back home after a well-publicized visit to the United States that included meeting President Bush. The Afghan leader was asked about reports of political wheeling and dealing in the leadup to September's elections.
During his U.S. visit, the Afghan leader engaged in a series of high-profile appearances in which he touted the successes of his interim government and spoke of the possible riches to be made by foreign investors in his country. He met with President Bush and other foreign leaders at the G8 summit in Georgia and again saw Mr. Bush at the White House.
In several public forums, reporters asked Mr. Karzai about his negotiations with powerful regional leaders whom many have called warlords. At the White House, Mr. Karzai said he was being realistic in talking with them, but insisted he is not cutting any deals for a future coalition government.
"It's my job to keep peace and stability in Afghanistan," he said. "And I will talk to anybody that comes to talk to me about stability and peace and about movement to democracy. No deals have been made. No coalitions have been made. And no coalitions will be made. And they did not ask for it."
In another forum, Mr. Karzai said some of the people he is talking to are "political actors", not warlords.
But Robert Templer, Asia program director of the privately run International Crisis Group, says Mr. Karzai is dealing with what he describes as "unsavory characters." He says many of them are former commanders of the anti-Soviet resistance who plunged Afghanistan into civil strife after the communist government collapsed in 1992.
"He's talking to some of the most unpleasant people in Afghanistan, some people who just don't deserve to have a role in Afghanistan's future," he said.
Mr. Templer says it is clear that Mr. Karzai is trying to win their political support.
"Unfortunately, he's quite keen to get them into the system and get their support," he added. "I think it's a mistake to view Karzai as someone who rises above the rough-and-tumble of Afghan politics. He's a player in Afghan politics and he's trying to get as many allies on his side as possible. And he doesn't care that much about what those people did in the past."
Larry Goodson, a professor at the U.S. Army War College, says discussion of a political role for the regional leaders has been shunted aside since the 2001 Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan's temporary political structures, but with elections looming for September, he says, the issue can no longer be ignored.
"The ability to keep postponing the hard political decisions is no longer there," he noted. "And so what I think we're seeing now with this deal-making is the really coming to grips with reality that there is no more postponing and people have to sit down and cut deals and, in fact, there is quite a lot of this going on behind the scenes."
What the regional leaders want is not precisely clear, although most analysts believe they want a respective share of cabinet posts in the administration that emerges from the September elections and no interference in their local regions from the Kabul government.
Analysts point out the Afghan army and police force are still being trained and can be expected to have difficulty confronting the regional militias on their home turf. Mr. Karzai is asking for more security from the international community to prevent any intimidation or violence in the elections.