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Afghan Leader's Comments Puzzle Officials

  • Gary Thomas

Recent comments by Afghan President Hamid Karzai have set off alarm bells in Washington and other capitals. His comments trouble officials and puzzle analysts.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's verbal broadsides against the West have sparked concern and genuine puzzlement. Why is Mr. Karzai, to use the old adage, biting the hand that feeds him?

Former U.N. Deputy Envoy to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith, who Mr. Karzai singled out in his accusations of vote fraud, offers the most commonly heard explanation. Galbraith, who dismisses as preposterous the notion that he engineered the vote fraud from which Mr. Karzai benefited, says the Afghan leader is simply fed up with Western pressure on him to clean up his government.

"Karzai's game is as it always has been. It is all about Hamid Karzai and staying in power," Galbraith said. "That is why his appointees, almost certainly with his knowledge and support, organized the fraudulent election results. He had a cozy relationship with the United Nations and the United States under President [George W.] Bush, because nobody asked anything of him. But now President Obama is asking things of him. He does not like it, and he is lashing out."

Hamid Karzai is the only leader post-Taliban Afghanistan has known. He won his second five-year term in last year's controversial election. Former E.U. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, who knows the president well, says Mr. Karzai is a very different man now than he was when Western nations essentially installed him as leader of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

"We have to remember that he is very isolated in his palace, that he is surrounded by lackeys who feed him what they think he would like to hear," Vendrell said. "And if he gets into a particular mood, then they all ensure that he keeps it up and offer reasons why he should be tough. I think in some ways he sounds to be crazy. But in some ways he also sounds to be very sane, trying to see how far he can push the envelope."

But other analysts think there may be something more at work than personal pique. The president is already negotiating with one insurgent faction led by former prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and has said that reconciling with at least some of the Taliban is the way he wants to proceed.

Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College says Mr. Karzai is trying to put some distance between himself and the West in anticipation of the day when the United States and NATO are no longer around to prop him up.

"I think that in reality he is really trying to position himself between the opposition and between the West by using the West as a whipping boy, knowing that the West is already committed in the form of President Obama's speech at West Point to putting in all these forces for a period of time," Goodson said.

Goodson says Mr. Karzai may resent the pressure on him. But, he adds, the United States has little choice but to continue to push him to eliminate corruption if there is any chance to win Afghans' hearts and minds over to the government side, which is central to counterinsurgency.

"Therefore, we have to try to improve the legitimacy of the government, which means we have to press him on corruption, even though we have got no chance of getting him to really change that," Goodson said. "And even if we found him with his hand in the cookie jar, what could we do about it? I mean, imagine that for a moment: we catch Karzai himself personally corrupt. Then what?"

Former EU Envoy Vendrell acknowledges that bringing pressure to bear is difficult given that the Afghan leader knows full well that any threat of an immediate U.S. troop pullout would be an empty one. But he says there are other avenues of pressure, such as cutting subsidies to pay tribal leaders and funds to run the presidential office.

"There are a series of things that could be cut of the kind that he personally would hate, including, incidentally, being invited on official visits abroad, I mean, to the West," Vendrell said.

President Karzai is due to visit Washington next month.

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