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 will be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, Western militaary officials acknowledge.
However, relations with Washington are now so bad that the White House hinted Tuesday that it might withdraw an invitation to visit in May, which was extended during President Barack 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 Karzai 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 his fellow Pashtun tribesmen.
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-Qaida 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 in the past. 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.
But other analysts regard the president's behavior as erratic, and they attribute it to various factors: Karzai's isolation in his presidential palace, his overdependence on an insular clique of advisers, a tendency toward emotionalism that is exacerbated by stress and weariness.
“Some of those in the (presidential) palace try to keep him happy with the wrong analysis, the wrong information,” said lawmaker Shukria Barakzai. “And there is the problem of micromanagement, of not enough thinking of the country's broader interests.”
Observing Karzai at close range, some see years of pent-up frustration bursting forth.
“He was very unhappy — and very, very angry,” said lawmaker Daoud Sultanzoy, recounting Saturday's stormy meeting with parliament members. Parliament's lower house had sought to curtail Karzai's power to pick the overseers of parliamentary elections due to take place later this year; the president reacted with fury.
Some senior Western diplomats in Kabul are sanguine about Karzai's heated language, calling it an effort to blow off steam and create a bulwark against criticism from opponents if he accedes to the wishes of the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization on some points.
There are ample opportunities for Karzai to disassociate himself from specific Western actions, such as military actions that cause civilian casualties, while not challenging overarching policy goals.
On Tuesday, NATO said four civilians had died in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan. Separately, it said it was investigating the deaths of a child and three other apparent civilians during fighting with insurgents in the east. Also this week, NATO acknowledged responsibility for the February deaths of five civilians in Paktia province, including a teenage girl and two pregnant women.
But even if Karzai can rally public support on issues such as civilian casualties, many observers see him as essentially adrift in his leadership role.
“He has never had a real agenda; he just reacts to events,” said Aziz Rafiee, the director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, a pro-democracy group. “There is no long-term vision for the country.”
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
Karzai's recent remarks have caused far less of a stir at home, but Afghans who had heard of his statements reacted with a mixture of worry and patriotic pride.
“These things he says about the West are only causing problems for him and for the country,” fretted 22-year-old Mohammed Aimal, an office worker in Kabul.
But Abdul Wahed, a 33-year-old government employee, disagreed.
“We didn't have a president or a government before we had Karzai — he's a good man,” he said. “It's not his job to save the Americans.”
(Tribune Washington bureau staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.)
(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.
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KABUL — In an apparent capitulation to international pressure, the government of President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday announced the removal of two top election officials who were implicated in widespread fraud in last summer's presidential elections.
The legal framework for upcoming parliamentary elections has been a key point of contention between Karzai and Western governments. Karzai has resisted demands for what diplomats called “root-and-branch” reform of Afghanistan's electoral system prior to the parliamentary vote, which is set for September.
Word of the electoral shake-up came from Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, who told reporters in Kabul that Azizullah Ludin, the director of the Independent Electoral Commission, had stepped down, together with Daoud Ali Najafi, the commission's chief electoral advisor.
Several foreign monitoring groups had accused Ludin and Najafi of abetting massive vote-rigging during August's balloting.
A separate fraud-auditing body stripped Karzai of about one-third of the votes cast for him, throwing the race to a runoff. That second round was averted, however, when the Afghan leader's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of the race.
Despite its name, the Independent Electoral Commission, the main body vote-overseeing body, is appointed by the president. During and after last August's race, Karzai's opponents had accused Ludin of favoring Karzai, who had handpicked him.
Replacements for the two officials have not yet been named.
Arrangements for the parliamentary vote have been an inflammatory topic in recent days, driving a wedge between Karzai and his Western patrons just as NATO is preparing for a massive military offensive in Afghanistan's south this summer.
Escalating discord between Karzai and the Obama administration began last Thursday, when Karzai, addressing election officials, blamed vote fraud on foreign interference and called it part of a Western conspiracy to weaken his government.
Similarly bellicose comments by the Afghan leader in subsequent days drew a warning from the White House on Tuesday that Karzai — who was invited last month to visit Obama in Washington — could be disinvited if his outbursts continued.
Despite the seriousness with which Karzai's comments were viewed in Washington and among some Western diplomats in Kabul, Omar sought to minimize the significance of several days of tense exchanges with the White House.
“It did not have any effect on strategic relations with the United States and the international community,” the spokesman insisted.
Diplomats including the new U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, had worked to defuse the dispute. The U.N. stepped in earlier with a compromise plan after Karzai issued a controversial decree giving himself sole authority to appoint members of the fraud-auditing panel, known as the Electoral Complaints Commission.
Afghan lawmakers tried to overrule that decree, and Karzai last week delivered an angry tirade to members of the lower house of parliament over that move, again casting blame on the West for meddling.
At that gathering, Karzai said Western interference in Afghan affairs fueled support for the insurgency, adding — apparently speaking rhetorically, according to the description of several lawmakers present in the closed-door meeting — that if such pressure continued, he might join the Taliban himself.
At Wednesday's news conference, Omar denied Karzai had made the remark, saying it “does not make sense.” But three of the lawmakers who originally reported it said they stood by their accounts and said Karzai had in fact said it twice.