Afghan Leader Losing Support

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 26, 2006

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 subject.

"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.


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