Karzai claims US interference is undermining his governmentImage: AP / Fotomontage: DW
April 6, 2010
The rift between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the West could widen this week over Karzai's recent allegations that foreign powers orchestrated massive fraud in the elections that returned him to power last year.
Karzai, who alleged at a private meeting with Afghan lawmakers last week that Western embassies and organizations had meddled in the disputed vote, refused to backtrack from his initial comments, prompting dismay and incredulity from the United States in particular.
During last week's lawmakers meeting, Karzai accused foreigners of perpetrating election fraud, bribing officials and trying to weaken his government.
Karzai said that Afghans alone should work to stamp out corruption and criminality, while life would only improve when people had faith in a government perceived to be running its own affairs, adding that the Taliban's revolt would "change to resistance" if the United States and its allies kept dictating how Afghanistan's government should run.
After Washington asked him for clarification about his comments, Karzai spoke to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a conciliatory call on Friday.
Two days later, at a meeting with tribal elders in Kandahar, the Afghan president distanced himself further from his Western backers by stating that Afghans needed to see their leaders were not "puppets" and that government officials should not let "foreigners" meddle in their work.
Then on Monday, Karzai reiterated his claims that Western powers had exerted influence and used intimidation during last November's presidential election and warned the West that further interference in Afghan affairs would lead to a further erosion in public trust and risked turning the Taliban's insurgency into a legitimate resistance.
US baffled by Karzai's allegations
The United States reacted with surprise and concern to Karzai's comments which came just a week after President Barack Obama's made a surprise visit to Kabul to urge Karzai to increase efforts to tackle corruption and criminality in Afghanistan.
"The remarks are troubling and the substance of the remarks is simply not true," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Experts believe that Karzai's comments, while they are causing concern in the West, are more tailored toward a domestic audience.
Political poker at home sees Karzai play a risky hand
Professor Yama Torabi, the co-director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, said Karzai was mostly delivering his message to the warlords and insurgents who claim he is an American stooge.
"I believe he wants to reduce external pressures," Torabi told Deutsche Welle. "I think he believes the offensive approach is a better option than the defensive when he can not deliver in terms of good governance and fight against corruption. Remember, he heavily relied on patronage and deals with local power brokers who made campaign for him during the last election. He is now tied to promises he made to these local power holders."
Obama's commitment puts Karzai in position of power
Dr Citha Maass, an Afghanistan expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and a former member of the EU's election monitoring mission in Afghanistan, believes that Karzai's statements show the real dynamic behind the current US-Afghan relationship.
"When President Obama took over from George W. Bush, there was a change in the US relationship with Karzai as Obama was more sceptical and more critical than Bush," she said. "Karzai has since showed that when he is put under pressure, he becomes more nationalistic and populist and we have seen him use similar rhetoric as this in other situations with Obama who has on many occasions pressured him over his poor governance."
Maass said the main problem is that Obama has bet his political future on Afghanistan and for every move he makes there, he needs a success to justify this.
"Karzai could have been indicted for his role in the fraudulent election in November but the US allowed him to remain in power because they have invested so heavily in him. So Karzai knows that Obama can’t abandon him. Even when the military aid is scaled down, Karzai knows that the US will be forced to provide development aid for many years to come. The two sides are tied together - but Karzai is the stronger one."
Relationship dynamic means spat will soon be forgotten
Dr. Maass believes that this relationship between the US and Karzai means that the row will gradually evaporate.
"The US will eventually back down and the whole situation will be downplayed by both sides," she said. "Karzai has not apologized but he has tried to clarify his statements and this is a clear sign that Karzai holds the better cards here. As I said before, he knows the US can't abandon him and that the Americans, in one way or another, are doomed to stay in Afghanistan."
Torabi also believes the row will blow over but that there may be a nasty residue left on the ground in Afghanistan.
"Neither Karzai nor the West can afford such a rift in the medium to long term," he said. "The result is more popular support for Karzai among the anti-Western groups such as Hezb-e-Islami who are also present in the government."
"There is a risk of seeing aid agencies that are associated with the West being harassed by public authorities. Hostile rhetoric among public officials is already following Karzai's change of mood. The Head of the High Office of Oversight, the Afghan anti-corruption agency, has already accused international agencies for committing 80 percent of corruption happening in Afghanistan."