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Challenges mount for Afghanistan's Karzai

The Afghan president finds himself grappling with maintaining stability in the capital while fighting grows ever bloodier in the south. He must also satisfy the conflicting demands of his countrymen and his foreign allies.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai addersses
Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses a gathering in Kabul during the Shiite mourning period of Ashoura on Monday. Karzai attended the Ashoura ceremony in a mostly Shiite neighborhood — a rare move in the Sunni-majority country.Massoud Hossaini / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

The Afghan president finds himself grappling with maintaining stability in the capital while fighting grows ever bloodier in the south. He must also satisfy the conflicting demands of his countrymen and his foreign allies.

At the same time, the beleaguered leader must deal with powerful neighbor Pakistan, with whom relations are often testy.

Asked recently if he would like Karzai’s job, one key ally in Kabul replied bluntly: “No”.

The reluctance stems not so much from loyalty as the slippery complexities of Afghan politics and the increasingly tough job confronting the head of one of the world’s most dangerous states.

Five years after U.S.-led forces ousted the hard-line Taliban government, Afghans complain Karzai and the West have failed to deliver on their promises of a better life, the Taliban are at their strongest and the fighting is at its worst.

More than 4,000 people — a quarter of them civilians — were killed last year and suicide bombings, once almost unheard of, have skyrocketed as insurgents copy tactics from Iraq.

Both the Taliban and the United States say the coming spring after the traditional winter lull in fighting will be bloody.

'The mayor of Kabul'
Karzai’s Western allies want him to establish a moderate Islamic state and put in place Western-style democracy and freedom, but such efforts draw criticism from many at home.

Critics say he is too soft and an appeaser but according to Habibullat Rafi, a writer and academic, Karzai cannot afford to upset either side.

“He has dealt with the problems too much through convenience and that is why he gets all the blame for whatever has gone wrong,” says Rafi.

Many dismiss Karzai as “the mayor of Kabul” because his writ largely does not extend beyond the limits of the capital or the main cities.

Even in Kabul the president, who became a father for the first time at 49 this month, rarely moves outside the heavily fortified marbled palace.

Some also see a man who has spent most of his life outside Afghanistan as a sellout to his Pashtun tribe, the dominant ethnic group and the core of Taliban support in Afghanistan and among Pashtuns across the border in Pakistan.

Leaders from other ethnic groups who helped U.S.-led forces overthrow the Taliban often hold high positions in Karzai’s government.

“Look at the government set-up -- all the key positions are run by non-Pashtuns,” says 40-year-old hawker Raaz Mohammad.

Little control?
But after decades of foreign intervention and civil war, Karzai must tread carefully to stop the country sliding back into ethnic confrontation, says Abdul Hamid Mubariz, a former deputy information minister and now an analyst.

Karzai’s supporters point out he has little control over the more than 40,000 foreign soldiers and the way promised --but poorly delivered -- aid and development money is spent.

Washington chose Karzai, the son of a powerful Pashtun clan chief, as interim leader after it ousted the Taliban in 2001 for failing to surrender Osama bin Laden over the Sept. 11 attacks.

A soft-spoken man with a salt-and-pepper beard, he was confirmed as president in an open election in 2004, the first direct and democratic poll in Afghanistan’s turbulent history.

A critical issue is closing the porous border with Pakistan, where the mainly Pashtun Taliban enjoy much local support. Karzai wants his allies to put more pressure on Islamabad to stop the Taliban and other militants operating on both sides of the border.

Pakistan says it already does as much as it can and rejects accusations from Kabul that it still supports the Taliban.

The president’s efforts to coax Taliban leaders into talks and to disarm a myriad of tribal, political and other groups with the help of the United Nations have also sparked opposition from powerful warlords.

Drug boom
Efforts by Karzai, the United States and allies to combat the illegal opium trade have failed to stop production rocketing in the world’s major producer -- up 60 percent last year.

Part of that money is fuelling the mounting insurgency, government ministers and foreign diplomats say.

Karzai is also under fire at home and abroad for not doing enough to tackle rampant graft.

But Afghan ministers are also bitterly critical of the failure of foreign countries to deliver promised aid, and of the sums of money that get lost along the way.

Karzai wept recently as he spoke of how much his people had suffered during almost three decades of fighting. But the Taliban accused him of shedding “crocodile tears”, saying he could do more if he wanted to and urging him to eject foreign troops. ”

“I know everybody blames him, but there are others to take responsibility too,” Mubariz said.