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Fine Print: The two sides of Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently has been alternately dismissive and appreciative of the U.S. involvement in his country.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently has been alternately dismissive and appreciative of the U.S. involvement in his country. (Anja Niedringhaus/associated Press)
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By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One of President Obama's problems, as he wrestles with choosing a new strategy for Afghanistan, is which Hamid Karzai he is dealing with: the leader who set out specific, promising goals in his inaugural address last week, or the apparently bitter and defensive politician seen in a PBS interview broadcast 10 days earlier.

In his address, Karzai took some sharply different positions than he had voiced during the Nov. 9 interview with Margaret Warner on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."

Take, for example, Karzai's description on "NewsHour" of why he thinks the United States and its coalition partners are in Afghanistan. "The West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan. It is here to fight the war on terror," he told Warner. Pointing out that the United States and its allies deserted Afghanistan after the Soviets left in 1989 and returned to his country only after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Karzai said: "Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that, too. Nobody bothered about us."

Later in the program, he clarified that remark, mentioning everything but the Taliban takeover. "Afghanistan was abandoned after the war with the Soviet Union," he said, "not only abandoned, but left to the mercy of the neighbors in a very cruel way."

In last Thursday's inaugural speech, a different Karzai addressed his "dear guests" -- including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting in the front row -- saying: "Our friendship with the United States of America is not limited to our joint struggle against violent extremists. . . . Rather, it is based on Afghanistan's long-term interests towards the consolidation of stability and tranquillity for our people in this region."

Referring to the United States as the largest contributor to his country's security, economic development and good governance, he added: "I am fully confident that the friendship will further expand."

Ten days earlier, when Warner asked whether he had any doubts about the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, the other Karzai said: "We keep hearing assurances from the United States, but we are, like, once bitten, twice shy. We have to watch and be careful, while we trust."

One of Karzai's biggest mood swings involved the U.N. efforts in Afghanistan. The interview with Warner came a little more than a week after the United Nations announced that it was taking 600 of its 1,100 international personnel out of the country after an attack at one of its guesthouses in Kabul killed eight people, including five U.N. employees.

Asked what impact the U.N. withdrawal would have, Karzai coldly responded, "No impact, no impact." When asked, "So you don't care if they return?" the Afghan president replied: "They may or may not return. I don't think Afghanistan will notice it. We wish them well, wherever they are."

Ten days later, a different Karzai described the United Nations as providing civilian leadership for eight years in organizing international assistance conferences and coordinating the world's efforts in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan appreciates the role of the United Nations and asks for a strengthening of the role of this organization in the areas of agreement," he said.

Warner asked about a publicized drug case in which a special narcotics court convicted five politically connected young men, 16 to 18, who were caught with 260 pounds of heroin. They were sentenced to more than 15 years in prison but were pardoned by Karzai in April in the run-up to the presidential election. One was a nephew of Karzai's campaign manager.

Karzai told Warner: "There was a lot of talk by the people around that family, and others, that this was a political case against these young people for reasons that I can't go into at this point." He said he decided on the pardons "because of their young age."

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