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Afghanistan's president faces a tough reelection

Hamid Karzai, once a beacon of hope for Afghans, needs more than 50% of the vote to win outright Thursday. But many who voted for him in 2004 think he has failed as a leader.

August 18, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Afghan President Hamid Karzai finished his reelection bid Monday the same way he began it two months ago: shunning most trappings of traditional campaigning in favor of cutting a deal with a former warlord for support.

The endorsement of Karzai by Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia leader stained by allegations of massive human rights abuses, was the latest demonstration of the president's strategy for holding on to power.

But it further frayed his already strained relationship with the Obama administration, which wants an effective partner in waging war against the Taliban and building a viable Afghan state.

Karzai has been forced to make deals because of unexpected weakness in an election he had been expected to win easily.

Festering grievances about the president -- from the corruption that colors his government to the rising insecurity accompanying a revived Taliban insurgency -- have created a race that may deny him the majority of votes he needs for victory in the first round of balloting Thursday.

On Monday, as his rivals wrapped up their own campaigns, shouts of "Karzai! Kar-ZAI!" rang across a dilapidated soccer stadium in Kabul, a former Taliban execution grounds.

But the chants were not a sign of adoration for the beleaguered president. They were the answer to the question asked at a rally held by his principal rival, Abdullah Abdullah, demanding to know: "Who's the one who failed at governing?"

Even if Karzai manages to stay in office, his deal-making has become a source of alarm to the foreign partners who were once among his strongest backers.

Rather than crisscrossing the country in search of votes as his opponents have done, Karzai's campaign has relied on Afghanistan's version of machine politics: forging ethnic and political alliances largely based on patronage.

Karzai's testy relations with Western diplomats and military leaders dipped to a new nadir Sunday when he disregarded their pleas and allowed Dostum to return to Afghanistan from a year in exile.

Karzai has reached out to former warlords and regional power brokers since the beginning of the campaign -- he picked former warlord Mohammed Fahim as his running mate.

But nothing was as audacious as his move to bring Dostum into his tent during the election season's final hours. The Uzbek chieftain had been living in Turkey, where he had fled after attacking a rival at his home.

By Monday he was back in the northern Afghan city of Shiberghan, imploring his enthusiastic followers to vote for Karzai.

Dostum is believed to be capable of delivering a considerable chunk of support, and his return was read as an explicit bit of deal-making under which the warlord could demand a senior government post, or merely free rein in his own fiefdom.

The U.S. Embassy issued an unusually sharply worded rebuke, citing "serious concerns" over Dostum's presence, "particularly during these historic elections." Many observers fear that "forward-looking forces," as the top U.N. representative in the country, Kai Eide, put it, could be shut out of the new order if Karzai wins another term.

A visibly contentious relationship with the Americans, though, is likely to help rather than hurt Karzai's chances with voters. For much of his tenure, which roughly overlapped that of the Bush administration, he was seen by many Afghans as too willing to do Washington's bidding.

In recent months, kept at arm's length by the Obama administration, he has unleashed harsh criticism of the foreign forces in Afghanistan, saying their carelessness results in far too many civilian deaths.

Obama, in a speech Monday to more than 5,500 military veterans in Phoenix, called the dismantling of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan "fundamental to the defense of our people."

Once the darling of the West and a beacon of hope for his people, Karzai led the interim government set up after the Taliban movement was driven from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. He had no serious challengers in Afghanistan's first direct presidential vote in 2004.

The world welcomed Karzai's win. In one capital after another, he was feted as a man who seemed to effortlessly straddle two worlds: charming and cultivated, educated and English-speaking, but with a deep connection to the Pashtun tribal culture from which he sprang.

Now Karzai's relations with the international community are frayed and many Afghans who voted for him the first time around have declared their intention to change sides.

On the last day of campaigning, the Karzai and Abdullah camps were again a study in contrasts.

Abdullah, who once served as Karzai's foreign minister, began the morning with the stadium rally in Kabul, the capital. He then flew off for a last round of barnstorming, this time in a troubled eastern province.

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