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.
Karzai bristled at international criticism that greeted his recent naming of 13 police officials, some of whom have been accused of human rights abuses. "This is our decision, and what we do is suitable for Afghanistan," Karzai said.
Foreign officials and analysts said the appointments went directly against their advice and were made on the basis of ethnic and political balance, rather than professional qualifications. Some feared they also were a sign of Karzai's submission to powerful opponents who seek to destabilize his government.
"This shows a bazaar mentality toward governing," said a European official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He's making decisions for short-term stability that go against his own interests and the long-term interests of building the country. As a result, international support for him is eroding, and it could become a real rift at the worst possible time."
Another area of disagreement has been Karzai's recent suggestion that local "community police" forces might be created to protect remote, vulnerable areas where security forces have little presence. To many foreign observers, this raises the specter of reviving Islamic and tribal militias, after four years of costly international efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate them into civilian life.
International advisers here said such moves were making it increasingly difficult for them to defend Karzai at a time when his government is facing its most serious armed threat since he took office under U.N. auspices in early 2002. The NATO alliance is preparing to deploy thousands of troops across the volatile south, the ethnic and religious heartland of the Taliban movement. There are currently more than 20,000 U.S. troops in the country.
While no one is suggesting that any imminent withdrawal of foreign military or economic support is likely, some European governments -- which do not share Washington's investment in Afghanistan as a role model for a modern Muslim democracy -- have begun to question the wisdom of costly long-term economic commitments and the risk of ongoing high battlefield casualties.
‘All a charade’
"There is an awful feeling that everything is lurching downward," said a Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Nearly five years on, there is no rule of law, no accountability. The Afghans know it is all a charade, and they see us as not only complicit but actively involved. You cannot fight a terror war and build a weak state at the same time, and it was a terrible mistake to think we could."
Aides to Karzai said the president has been unfairly criticized. They described drug smugglers with powerful sport-utility vehicles and rockets outrunning police with rifles in old Russian jeeps, and districts of 60,000 inhabitants that have only 45 police officers. They said ideas such as recruiting local police were creative attempts to solve urgent security needs.
The aides said that while Afghans have a right to be impatient with the slow pace of institutional reforms and alarmed by the growing insurgent threat, the foreign powers often failed to treat Karzai as a legitimate president and tried to micromanage his government. They said the current insurgency has erupted in places that were dangerously neglected by foreign aid agencies and troops for the past several years.
Karzai's top priority had been to unite a country that was deeply fragmented after years of civil war and repressive Islamic rule, said Jawed Ludin, Karzai's chief spokesman. That goal sometimes has meant compromising with adversaries in ways that might appear weak to outsiders.
"We acknowledge there have been failures of governance, of police reforms, of institution-building. But the main problem is terrorism," Ludin said. "We know people are unhappy, but it is very unhelpful for our friends to blame him personally for the problems of a country that is crippled and starting from scratch."
In his rare public appearances, the president has continued to project bonhomie and self-confidence. He recently flew to Konar province in the east, where he encouraged schoolgirls to become doctors and run for president, and to Kandahar city in the south, where he visited hospitalized civilians who were wounded in a U.S. airstrike against Taliban fighters.
This week, aides said, he is receiving hundreds of tribal elders from Helmand and Kandahar provinces in his heavily guarded palace, hoping to persuade them to be patient while Afghan and foreign forces try to root out insurgents and restore peace to the region.
‘I feel cheated and full of sorrow’
But according to a variety of observers, such palace pep talks no longer carry the credibility they did two years ago, before Islamic insurgents began burning schools, and drug traffickers and former militia commanders began building opulent mansions.
In the modest Kabul tailor shop, Mohammed Jan, 50, snipped a pattern with shears. He said he brought his family back from Iran two years ago "because we were told there was democracy. Instead the old warlords are back," he said. "At night people are robbed at home. In the day they are robbed at the ministries. I feel cheated and full of sorrow."