Afghan Leader Losing Support: Foreign, Local Allies Cite Weak Karzai Leadership

by Pamela Constable

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 25 -- Many Afghans and
some foreign supporters say they are losing faith
in President Hamid Karzai's government, which is
besieged by an escalating insurgency and endemic
corruption and is unable to protect or administer large areas of the country.

As a sense of insecurity spreads, a rift is
growing between the president and some of the
foreign civilian and military establishments
whose money and firepower have helped rebuild and
defend the country for nearly five years. While
the U.S. commitment to Karzai appears solid,
several European governments are expressing
serious concerns about his leadership.

"The president had a window of opportunity to
lead and make difficult decisions, but that
window is closing fast," said one foreign
military official in Kabul who, like others,
spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the

"This is a crucial time, and there is frustration
and finger-pointing on all sides," the official
said. "President Karzai is the only alternative
for this country, but if he attacks us, we can't
help him project his vision. And if he goes down, we all go down with him."

In markets and mosques across the country,
Afghans are focusing discontent on Karzai, 48,
the amiable, Western-backed leader whose
landslide election in October 2004 appeared to
anchor a process of political reconstruction and
stability that began with the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001.

Since then, public confidence in his leadership
has soured with reports of highway police robbing
travelers, government jobs sold to the highest
bidder, drug traffic booming and aid money
vanishing. There are no public opinion polls
here, but several dozen Afghan and foreign observers expressed similar views.

Since April, an aggressive Taliban offensive
across the south has resulted in the deaths of
600 people. In the past four days, more than 150
insurgents have been reported killed in battles
with Afghan and foreign troops in the southern
provinces of Uruzgan and Kandahar.

Late last month, a riot in Kabul, in which
protesters attacked foreign facilities for hours
as police vanished from the streets, raised
concerns among many people here that the
government is too weak to protect even the capital.

"In the past year, security has gotten worse and
worse," said Sayed Tamin, 42, a tailor in a
working-class Kabul district who was hemming a
pair of pants. "The Taliban have been able to
come back because the government is weak. There
is corruption in high places and nothing for the
poor. People are very, very disappointed."

Hamida, 32, waited on a bench for alterations.
She said she was visiting from Zabol province in
the south. "My husband was a school principal,
but the Taliban threatened to kill him, so he
quit and now he is sitting at home," she said.
"We women cannot leave our houses. The police
come under attack at night, and we only see
foreign soldiers once in a while. There is no one to protect us."

Karzai and his advisers have taken bitter umbrage
at the criticism, saying they have tried their
best to govern and secure the country under
nearly impossible conditions. They accuse their
foreign allies of unfairly blaming the president
for problems he did not create.

At a news conference Thursday, Karzai strongly
criticized his government's foreign allies,
saying they had long ignored his pleas for more
help to build the nation's security forces. He
suggested that they needed to make a "strategic
reassessment" of the anti-insurgent fight here
and look to causes beyond Afghanistan's borders.
The president has previously accused Pakistan of
harboring and aiding insurgents.

Karzai bristled at international criticism that
greeted his recent naming of 13 police officials,
some of whom have been accused of human rights
abuses. "This is our decision, and what we do is
suitable for Afghanistan," Karzai said.

Foreign officials and analysts said the
appointments went directly against their advice
and were made on the basis of ethnic and
political balance, rather than professional
qualifications. Some feared they also were a sign
of Karzai's submission to powerful opponents who
seek to destabilize his government.

"This shows a bazaar mentality toward governing,"
said a European official who spoke on the
condition of anonymity. "He's making decisions
for short-term stability that go against his own
interests and the long-term interests of building
the country. As a result, international support
for him is eroding, and it could become a real
rift at the worst possible time."

Another area of disagreement has been Karzai's
recent suggestion that local "community police"
forces might be created to protect remote,
vulnerable areas where security forces have
little presence. To many foreign observers, this
raises the specter of reviving Islamic and tribal
militias, after four years of costly
international efforts to disarm, demobilize and
reintegrate them into civilian life.

International advisers here said such moves were
making it increasingly difficult for them to
defend Karzai at a time when his government is
facing its most serious armed threat since he
took office under U.N. auspices in early 2002.
The NATO alliance is preparing to deploy
thousands of troops across the volatile south,
the ethnic and religious heartland of the Taliban
movement. There are currently more than 20,000 U.S. troops in the country.

While no one is suggesting that any imminent
withdrawal of foreign military or economic
support is likely, some European governments --
which do not share Washington's investment in
Afghanistan as a role model for a modern Muslim
democracy -- have begun to question the wisdom of
costly long-term economic commitments and the
risk of ongoing high battlefield casualties.

"There is an awful feeling that everything is
lurching downward," said a Western diplomat,
speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Nearly
five years on, there is no rule of law, no
accountability. The Afghans know it is all a
charade, and they see us as not only complicit
but actively involved. You cannot fight a terror
war and build a weak state at the same time, and
it was a terrible mistake to think we could."

Aides to Karzai said the president has been
unfairly criticized. They described drug
smugglers with powerful sport-utility vehicles
and rockets outrunning police with rifles in old
Russian jeeps, and districts of 60,000
inhabitants that have only 45 police officers.
They said ideas such as recruiting local police
were creative attempts to solve urgent security needs.

The aides said that while Afghans have a right to
be impatient with the slow pace of institutional
reforms and alarmed by the growing insurgent
threat, the foreign powers often failed to treat
Karzai as a legitimate president and tried to
micromanage his government. They said the current
insurgency has erupted in places that were
dangerously neglected by foreign aid agencies and
troops for the past several years.

Karzai's top priority had been to unite a country
that was deeply fragmented after years of civil
war and repressive Islamic rule, said Jawed
Ludin, Karzai's chief spokesman. That goal
sometimes has meant compromising with adversaries
in ways that might appear weak to outsiders.

"We acknowledge there have been failures of
governance, of police reforms, of
institution-building. But the main problem is
terrorism," Ludin said. "We know people are
unhappy, but it is very unhelpful for our friends
to blame him personally for the problems of a
country that is crippled and starting from scratch."

In his rare public appearances, the president has
continued to project bonhomie and
self-confidence. He recently flew to Konar
province in the east, where he encouraged
schoolgirls to become doctors and run for
president, and to Kandahar city in the south,
where he visited hospitalized civilians who were
wounded in a U.S. airstrike against Taliban fighters.

This week, aides said, he is receiving hundreds
of tribal elders from Helmand and Kandahar
provinces in his heavily guarded palace, hoping
to persuade them to be patient while Afghan and
foreign forces try to root out insurgents and restore peace to the region.

But according to a variety of observers, such
palace pep talks no longer carry the credibility
they did two years ago, before Islamic insurgents
began burning schools, and drug traffickers and
former militia commanders began building opulent mansions.

In the modest Kabul tailor shop, Mohammed Jan,
50, snipped a pattern with shears. He said he
brought his family back from Iran two years ago
"because we were told there was democracy.
Instead the old warlords are back," he said. "At
night people are robbed at home. In the day they
are robbed at the ministries. I feel cheated and full of sorrow."
© 2006 The Washington Post Company