Afghanistan's Karzai to urge caution as U.S. pushes to empower local leaders

Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton depart after a news conference at the State Department.
Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton depart after a news conference at the State Department. (Alex Wong/getty Images)
By Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is built around the belief that all good counterinsurgency is local. In recent months, American officials have focused their plans on pushing power and money down to district, tribal and village leaders.

But those plans have not sat well with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has argued that any weakening in his position could fracture the central government and undermine his ability to woo Taliban fighters away from the insurgency.

Karzai, who is set to meet with President Obama on Wednesday, plans to stress that the U.S. search for local governance solutions cannot come at Kabul's expense, sources close to his delegation said. The challenge for U.S. officials will be to convince Karzai that ceding power and control to local leaders will in the long run strengthen his hold on office.

For years, the U.S. governance strategy in Afghanistan focused almost entirely on Kabul, which despite its relative lack of control over vast stretches of the country remains one of the most centralized governments in the world. "We spent nine years dealing only with Karzai," said one Western diplomat.

The approach created local governments disconnected from their constituents and fed allegations of corruption. It also meant that U.S. officials lacked reliable interlocutors outside Kabul.

"The answer to this problem does not rest in Kabul," said a senior U.S. official in Afghanistan. "It rests with empowering those at the provincial and district level."

Karzai presides over a fragile coalition made up of various ethnic groups and divisions within those groups. He is a Pashtun, as are most members of the Taliban, but he leads a government in which many of the most powerful players are from the Tajik-led Northern Alliance, the group that overthrew the Taliban with U.S. assistance in 2001.

Since Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in mid-2011, some factional leaders inside the national and local governments and the insurgents themselves have begun maneuvering for a post-U.S. future. The maneuvering has only intensified Karzai's fears of American abandonment.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to allay such concerns Tuesday at a day-long State Department conference attended by Karzai and more than a dozen of his leading cabinet ministers, saying: "We will not abandon the Afghan people."

Karzai responded that any U.S.-Afghan tensions are "the sign of a matured relationship" between partners who "have joined hands to bring security to Afghanistan and by extension to the United States and the rest of the world."

The shift in U.S. policy toward local governance is especially true in Kandahar, where U.S.-led forces are scheduled to begin a major offensive this summer. One of the main goals of the operation is to build up local officials' and tribal leaders' control in the country's second-largest city. The operation is "going to be focused as much on governance as on military operations," said Lt. Gen. David Barno, who served as the top officer in Afghanistan in the early years of the war.

The planned offensive has already drawn some criticism from Karzai. Recently, he bristled at suggestions by U.S. officials that one of the operation's major goals should be to dilute the influence of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is one of the most powerful figures in the city and is seen by many Afghans as corrupt.

Other efforts to build up local power have also been slowed by Afghanistan's sclerotic bureaucracy. In late March, the Afghan government approved a long-overdue mechanism for allocating money to district governors, who have had virtually no funds to initiate development projects or even hire staffs. But a U.S. official said that it could take as long as two years to implement the new policy and actually deliver the money to the district governments.

"If you ask Afghans or U.S. military commanders what matters most to them, the answer is almost always local governance," said Andrew Exum, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security who has served as an adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. "But the truth is that the government is going to be more centralized than would be ideal for Afghanistan."

Karzai also wants to retain control of reintegration and reconciliation with Afghan insurgents, and will present Obama with a draft of a program he plans to make public at a peace jirga, or conference, now scheduled to take place in Kabul on May 29. The plan deals primarily with how to allocate $160 million in international funds to new government bodies, as well as programs to provide jobs for low-level insurgents who agree to stop fighting.

When Karzai first announced the conference, during an international gathering on Afghanistan in January, he indicated that insurgent leaders would be welcome to attend. Since then, the insurgents have said they are not interested. Karzai has also become leery of efforts by neighboring Pakistan to influence the reconciliation process, and uncomfortable with increasingly close U.S.-Pakistani government and military relations.

Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.

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