Karzai's defiant stance concerns U.S., other Afghans

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By Joshua Partlow
Monday, April 5, 2010

KABUL -- President Obama's visit to Kabul last week, intended in part to forge a closer working relationship with President Hamid Karzai, has helped produce the opposite: an angry Afghan leader now attacking the West for what he perceives as an effort to manipulate him and weaken his rule.

Karzai's relationship with his U.S. backers in the past week has taken a sharp turn for the worse after his two anti-Western speeches in three days, remarks that some officials see as a rehearsed, intentional move away from the United States.

In remarks to parliament members Saturday, Karzai said that if foreign interference in his government continues, the Taliban would become a legitimate resistance -- one that he might even join, according to lawmakers present.

"When I heard Karzai's remarks, it really shocked me. It scared me," a senior Afghan official who works closely with Karzai said. "We should not take this lightly. This is a golden opportunity to have the West here; we can't squander it."

Karzai's comments have angered U.S. officials and some of his prominent Afghan colleagues in the government, who fear he is jeopardizing international funding and military support because his pride has been injured.

"That guy's erratic, he's unpredictable. I don't get him," said a senior U.S. military official in Kabul.

Obama's visit was far from the only aggravation for Karzai in a partnership that has simmered with mistrust since the Afghan leader narrowly won reelection last year. But it helped propel him to his new antagonistic stance, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Karzai wanted Obama to publicly praise his plans for a "peace jirga," the planned meeting of tribal elders and political leaders to discuss reconciliation with insurgents, said the senior Afghan official, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. Karzai also wanted support for his views on how to reform the electoral law ahead of parliamentary elections in September.

What he got was Obama prodding him to perform. He pushed Karzai to keep two foreigners on an elections commission that investigates fraud; to appoint cabinet ministers based on merit rather than personal ties; and to fight corruption by giving more authority and independence to the corruption oversight agency, among other things. Karzai saw the visit less as a public show of partnership than the United States coming to scold an ineffectual leader, according to his supporters.

"Our most important ally is constantly criticizing us: 'You're corrupt. You need to do this and that,' " said Hekmat Karzai, director of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, and a cousin of the president. "You cannot talk down to the Afghans like they're children or they don't understand."

This perceived slight of Obama's visit was compounded by the lower house of parliament's rejection of Karzai's decree that would reform the nation's elections law and give him more power over the commission that investigates voting fraud. The latter is a sore subject for him, since the panel ruled last year that widespread fraud of the presidential vote erased his first-round majority.

Karzai's first speech on Thursday harshly criticized foreigners and the United Nations for conspiring to weaken his government and accused foreign embassies of orchestrating the voting fraud. This caused a diplomatic uproar that was quelled only during Karzai's phone call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the next day, in which he expressed his commitment to their partnership.


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