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The Karzai puzzle

April 6, 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is becoming a thorn in the side of the West. His most recent comments are being seen as a 'problematic breach of trust.' But, as DW's Ratbil Shamel writes, Karzai is their only choice.


The times when Kabul and Washington could blindly rely on each other appear to have ended long ago. Both sides accuse each other of being powerless in the fight against the Taliban, corruption and drug barons. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also vehemently accused the West of interfering with his country's internal affairs. For example, it wasn't Karzai who manipulated the last presidential elections, but "the foreigners."

Recently, Karzai has been happy presenting himself as an independent politician who is unwavering in the face of every exercise of influence in his country. Karzai's most recent speech to Afghanistan's tribal leaders in Kandahar was in line with this new approach. In the speech, Karzai called for an upcoming NATO offensive to only be executed in accordance with him and the tribal leaders. Later on, in a closed-door meeting with parliamentary delegates, Karzai reportedly added that the disregard for Afghan laws by "foreigners" would only strengthen the Taliban further.

Eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, critical statements like this from the president are well received by Afghans. Karzai and his team know this. Since the head of the Afghan government cannot impress his people with deeds, he is trying to do it instead with words. Many Afghans are disappointed in light of the desolate situation in their country. Mostly, they are disappointed in the West, and the Americans above all. Security, democracy, and a better life were promised to them, but the reality of their day-to-day lives after nearly a decade of US-presence looks very different.

Ratbil Shamel
Ratbil ShamelImage: DW

But the Afghan president isn't only distancing himself from his American protectors for populist reasons. Karzai, who enjoyed the trust of the previous American President, George W. Bush, has noticed that he does not receive the same support from the new Democratic administration in Washington. President Barack Obama named Richard Holbrooke as his special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan - precisely the US politician who Karzai publicly criticizes and accuses of being to close to his political rival Abdullah Abdullah and Pakistan.

Karzai was also irked that his re-election was publically questioned by the US. Again, Karzai noticed that his policy of reconciliation with the radical forces in Afghanistan did not receive the desired support of the Obama administration. Karzai knows that he lost a lot of prestige from friends and enemies and is now trying to win some back. And not just with words. A few weeks ago he made yet another visit to Beijing and Tehran. With the visits, Karzai is hoping to show that he certainly does have other friends in the region. It's a dangerous policy: Kabul tried to play the world's superpowers off against each other once before 50 years ago. That had devastating results for Afghanistan that can still be felt today.

But Karzai knows that the United States, however much it criticizes him, doesn't have an alternative to Karzai at the moment. He is, for better or worse, the elected president of the Afghan people. The US cannot afford to ignore him completely - they cannot fight against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Kabul all at the same time.

President Barack Obama will not have, at least publicly, any other option than to be more cordial with his Afghan counterpart. The next chance for that will come at the beginning of May with Karzai's planned visit to Washington. It would be advisable for both sides to put more of their efforts into quiet diplomacy rather than saber rattling. The situation in Afghanistan is anything but stable and the people there are waiting longingly for progress. Discord between Kabul and Washington could seriously threaten the success of the peace mission, with devastating results for Afghanistan and the rest of the world.

Ratbil Shamel, DW's Afghan Service (mz)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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