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Afghan President Karzai's anti-Western remarks leave many guessing sincerity

Some analysts wonder whether President Hamid Karzai is playing to a domestic audience. Others worry that his rhetoric may mean he won't back an impending campaign against the Taliban.

April 07, 2010|By Laura King

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The bursts of angry rhetoric come in quick succession, like the thunderclaps of spring storms. These days, it's difficult to recall that President Hamid Karzai was once hailed by the West as a silver-tongued statesman and an unquestioned ally.

The Afghan leader's incendiary public statements have left even some of those who are close to him wondering: How much of the anti-Western sentiment he has voiced in the last week is genuine, and how much of it is political theater, calibrated for domestic consumption?

"With Karzai, you never know," said Ramazan Bashardost, an Afghan lawmaker who unsuccessfully ran against him in last summer's turbulent presidential election. "He says one thing in the morning, and another in the afternoon. And he might mean both of them."

Concern about Karzai's mercurial temperament is taking on strategic dimensions as the United States and its allies engage in a military buildup and prepare for what they describe as the most important offensive of the Afghanistan conflict, a campaign to wrest the southern province of Kandahar from the Taliban.

The province is the Afghan leader's birthplace and the home turf of his politically influential Popalzai tribe. Without the president's public backing, the campaign would be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, Western military officials acknowledge.

However, relations with Washington are so bad that the White House hinted Tuesday that it might withdraw an invitation to visit in May, which was extended during President Obama's visit to Kabul, the Afghan capital, late last month. Obama's criticism of the Afghan leadership then may have helped launch the current contretemps.

If the Afghan president falters now, it will cast doubt on the nearly decade-long partnership between him and the United States, forged in the smoldering aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks when Karzai returned from exile to help muster resistance to the Taliban among Pashtun people.

Though sometimes rocky, the alliance has largely endured, based on the common goal of keeping the insurgency at bay and preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Ill feeling between Karzai and Washington has simmered for at least a year, roughly coinciding with the change of U.S. administrations. It deepened with last summer's fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election.

But in the course of the last week, the bad blood has practically splattered the walls.

On Thursday, Karzai told election officials in a rambling speech that foreigners, not Afghans, bore responsibility for massive fraud in the August presidential balloting.

Two days later, speaking to lawmakers, Karzai inveighed against foreign meddling that he said was fueling support for the insurgency, adding, in a flush of hyperbole, that perhaps he'd join the Taliban himself. (A Taliban spokesman derided him as a Western "puppet" who wouldn't be welcome.)

Then, in an interview aired Monday on the BBC, Karzai brushed off a series of rebukes from Washington, making his previous accusations even more pointedly anti-American.

Karzai was said to have been angered and offended when Obama delivered a critique on corruption during the Kabul trip, which was publicized by White House aides. Good governance is a key element of new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, and Karzai has been under heavy pressure to clean up graft in his administration.

Obama came into office intent on revamping strategy in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush had enjoyed a cordial relationship with Karzai, but many in the Obama administration thought it had come at the expense of delivering a clear demand that Karzai institute sweeping reforms. In the meantime, the Taliban had regrouped and seized the initiative.

One factor that makes it difficult to calm the storm is that there are few U.S. figures with whom the Afghan leader seems to feel a genuine rapport. Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, both reportedly have gotten into shouting matches with Karzai. There are also lingering tensions with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who last year warned Washington in diplomatic cables that Karzai was an unreliable partner.

Some analysts see Karzai's spate of anti-foreigner rhetoric as a classic crowd-pleasing tactic, playing to Afghanistan's centuries-old mistrust of outsiders. A ringing defense of Afghan sovereignty is rarely unpopular in this country.

There are elements of Karzai's hands-off message that the West embraces. In both U.S. military and diplomatic circles, "Afghan-owned" is a key catchphrase, referring to the long-term goal of Afghanistan taking responsibility for its own security and political destiny, eventually enabling Western forces to withdraw.

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