With Karzai Favored to Win, U.S. Walks a Fine Line
Criticism Tempered To Avoid Hostility

By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 14, 2009

KABUL -- The last time Hamid Karzai ran for president, in 2004, he was clearly America's man in Afghanistan. U.S. military helicopters shuttled him between campaign stops. At his inauguration, Vice President Richard B. Cheney was there to hail the day as a major moment "in the history of human freedom."

With a new round of voting one week away -- and Karzai favored to win another term -- a less-enamored Obama administration is looking for ways to lessen U.S. reliance on the Afghan president by working more closely with favored ministers and bolstering the authority of provincial and local leaders, according to American and Afghan officials.

The goals reflect frustration among U.S. officials over Karzai's performance in the past five years, particularly his seeming indifference to the widespread corruption within his government. But as it increasingly appears that Karzai will be its partner over the next five years, the United States has also sought to preserve a relationship with him.

"Because they couldn't construct a plan to replace Karzai, I think they toned down the criticism and kept the option open of working with Karzai, should he get reelected," said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. "I think some administration officials realized that by being so openly critical of Karzai, they faced the risk that they could get a Karzai who was not only reelected but was hostile to the U.S. because of how he had been treated."

The United States is "actively impartial" in the Aug. 20 vote, said Jane Marriott, a senior adviser to U.S. special representative Richard C. Holbrooke. But according to Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, U.S. officials back the idea of a new chief executive position under Karzai to add coherence and competence to his struggling bureaucracy.

"I know that in Washington this idea has strong supporters," Spanta said in an interview, adding that installing a "shadow prime-minister" would pose constitutional problems.

U.S. officials have discussed the proposal with a key Karzai challenger, the technocratic former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, though they have not endorsed him for the job.

Rather than "just pouring money into building the government," Holbrooke adviser Barnett R. Rubin said, the administration is focused on "rebuilding the relationship between subnational authorities and local communities." Rubin stressed that such activities were being undertaken in cooperation with the central government in Kabul.

Critical of some of Karzai's cabinet choices, the administration has praised the competence of presidentially appointed local leaders such as the governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal. Plans by the U.S. Defense and State departments call for installing American "mentors" and liaisons in Afghan ministries in Kabul, a policy that was heavily used during the early years of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

President Obama has called the Afghan election, the second since the Taliban regime's ouster in 2001, the most important event of the year in this country. Originally scheduled for April, the vote was postponed during what Holbrooke called a "crisis" period of Afghan constitutional and security upheaval. As a result, Holbrooke said, the Obama administration was forced to defer other priorities in Afghanistan and spend "most of the spring" sorting out the electoral crisis.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new U.S. military commander here, has postponed completion of his review of the security situation, originally due to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this weekend, in part because of the upcoming presidential and provincial council elections. "This is our main effort. I don't want anybody to think we're not anything but completely focused on this," McChrystal said.

"Until the election legitimizes the government, whoever wins, we have to focus on that," Holbrooke said. Holbrooke, Marriott and Rubin spoke at a media event in Washington on Wednesday.

U.S. officials here said their primary interest now is a fair and free election campaign in which the candidates -- 3,324 people have registered for 420 provincial council seats, and 41 are vying to be president -- debate the issues. The officials also say they want a vote unmarred by fraud or violence, results that Afghans accept as legitimate and a government that responds to the needs of the people.

"We're very careful not to conjecture. What we're clear about is regardless of who comes into power, there needs to be much greater demand for accountability," said a U.S. official involved in the election process.

Of the leading presidential candidates, Karzai remains the clear favorite. A U.S.-funded poll released this week found that 45 percent of decided voters favored him, compared with 25 percent for his closest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former foreign minister. The margin is significant because Karzai, who won in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote, would need to clear 50 percent to forestall a runoff.

The question of who, if anyone, the United States backs has been important from the beginning, although candidates have had to walk a fine line in simultaneously portraying themselves as acceptable to Americans and able to keep U.S. funding flowing, but distant enough not to be seen as an American puppet. Four prominent Afghan politicians, including Abdullah and Ghani, the former finance minister, attended Obama's inauguration in January. Karzai, however, was absent, and a narrative developed early on that Obama was eager for a change at the top in Afghanistan. Ghani and Abdullah have told people privately that the United States gave them the green light to run for president, according to a former U.S. official here.

Karzai was angered when U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry appeared beside Ghani and Abdullah at news conferences in June, although Eikenberry stressed impartiality in his remarks. A week and a half after Karzai failed to show up at Afghanistan's first televised debate, against Abdullah and Ghani, Eikenberry published an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for "serious debate among the candidates."

Despite the administration's denials, many in Afghanistan view these developments as a message that the Americans favored Karzai's rivals.

"The U.S. has certainly tried to undermine Karzai's leadership," said Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies. But the failure of rival candidates to unite on a ticket dashed what appeared to many observers to be a U.S. hope of an opposition coalition.

"I think the greatest pressure on the United States has been to convince Afghans and all the candidates that it is not interfering in the election one way or another," Vali Nasr, a senior Holbrooke aide, said in an interview. "What the U.S. has consistently said is that it wants an election that is free and fair, and does not lead to indecision, confusion or violence, that the elections would be followed quickly by getting back to business."

Concerns persist about Karzai's leadership on many levels, including his ability to address corruption, to project his power nationwide, to help stem rising Taliban violence and to outline a clearer plan for a peace process. U.S. officials have been critical of his decision on the campaign trail to surround himself with infamous commanders such as his running mate, the powerful Tajik leader Mohammed Fahim, and several others Karzai has courted in an attempt to secure ethnic and regional voting blocs.

Karzai has at times been critical of the U.S. presence, especially over the issue of civilian casualties in U.S. military operations. But in a speech this week, he said that he valued American sacrifices in the war and that "we will not only keep this strategic partnership with the U.S., but we also will improve it." At the same time, he demanded that coalition troops stop arresting Afghans and close all foreign prisons here.

Karzai's rivals describe him as paranoid about foreign intrigue.

"He considers everybody part of that big plot," Abdullah said. "In the meetings with elders and political leaders who have talked and spoken to me, he says this, 'We should unite. You know, there are plots, Americans, British,' and so on and so forth."

"His relations with the Americans?" Abdullah said. "What do you think? Everybody is stuck with him."

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