Karzai back at helm, with a battered image

Image: Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai
President Hamid Karzai greets the guards of honor as he arrives to the presidential palace for his inauguration in Thursday.Anja Niedringhaus / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

As Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan’s president on Thursday, the mood about the man could hardly be more different from when he first emerged to lead the country.

Instead of being celebrated as a person with the stature and credentials to unify and lead, he steps back into office after a fraud-tainted election, to head a government that is steeped in corruption and apparently incapable of halting the Taliban insurgency and violence.

The United States, which once held up Karzai as evidence of progress toward a new, more democratic country, now views its partner with skepticism and is openly leaning on Karzai to clean up the corruption in the government ranks. The U.S. and other NATO countries have said they are weighing the rampant government corruption and mismanagement in decisions on committing more troops.

Putting a positive spin on it, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — who arrived in Kabul on Wednesday to attend the ceremony — said Karzai's inauguration provides a new chance for him to strengthen government accountability.

"There is now a clear window of opportunity for President Karzai and his government to make a new compact with the people of Afghanistan to demonstrate clearly that they're going to have accountability and tangible results that will improve the lives of the people who live throughout this magnificent country," Clinton told employees at the heavily secured U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul.

Early adulation, loss of confidence
The early adulation makes the loss of confidence in Karzai appear all the more dramatic.

When Karzai emerged as the leader of Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of the Taliban rulers in 2001, he was seen as having the credentials to unite the ethnically fragmented country and to work with Western forces to improve security.

He had served in the Afghan government immediately after the Soviet occupation and was a member of the majority Pashtun ethnic group, which historically has ruled Afghanistan.

He also was known to Western officials because he had helped to organize opposition to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and to the Taliban regime in the 1990s from neighboring Pakistan.

The bearded, cape-wearing Karzai also was well educated and English-speaking, and he cut a dashing figure in media appearances — so much so that Gucci designer Tom Ford famously described him as “the chic-est man on the planet” in January 2002.

Doubt about legitimacy
But many Afghans and international observers are not convinced that Karzai is the legitimate winner of August polling. International election observers auditing the vote concluded that Karzai had not won an outright majority. They said that after discounting about 1 million fraudulent ballots, the gap between Karzai and his nearest competitor, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah was narrow enough to require a run-off. That vote never took place because Abdullah bowed out, saying he did not believe there would be a fair election.

Well before the sketchy results, detractors in Afghanistan and abroad were berating Karzai for failing to rein in warlords, drug trafficking and government corruption.

Nor has he had much success in combating the Taliban insurgency. Karzai and his NATO allies have struggled to extend government control beyond Kabul and its immediate environs. The Taliban have capitalized on growing discontent of Afghanistan, and now control much of the countryside while maintaining a strong presence in major cities, such as Kandahar and Ghazni.

Since taking office in January, President Barack Obama and his administration have signaled ambivalence toward the man once heralded as Afghanistan’s greatest hope.

For his part, Karzai has grown increasingly critical of the conduct of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan – especially of the killing of civilians in the war against the Taliban. That is seen, at least in part, as an effort to show that he is not a U.S. puppet, as portrayed by the Taliban.

‘Caught in the middle’
Karzai’s defenders say he has been placed in an impossible situation.

“It’s easy to criticize Karzai,” says Kim Barker, Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan foreign-policy think tank. “But he’s also a man caught in the middle, trapped between the West demanding that he do A, B, and C … and the warlords.”

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Karzai worked with an exile group in Pakistan seeking to liberate his homeland. He returned after the 1992 Soviet withdrawal and for several turbulent years served as deputy foreign minister in the new Afghan government.

He was briefly allied with the Taliban, but he turned against them when they took control of the government and imposed an extreme brand of Islamic law. Operating once again from Pakistan, Karzai was involved in organizing resistance to the Taliban. He also made frequent trips to Washington to seek U.S. support and to warn of the terrorist threat posed by the Taliban and foreign extremists who had taken refuge in Afghanistan.

After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban regime, Karzai was chosen by a traditional council of Afghan elders to be president until 2004, when elections could be held. He was then re-elected for a five-year term in office, which ends this year.

One of the hallmarks of his political style and his survival strategy is his “big-tent” approach — an effort to include all the tribal factions and political rivals in his government.

Outrage over deals
Since 2005, however, he has brought a growing array of unsavory characters into his “tent” — including powerful regional warlords.

In August, in what appeared to be a deal to gain support for his election, Karzai allowed the return of notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum to Afghanistan from his exile in Turkey. Dostum is accused of allowing his men to kill up to 2,000 prisoners captured during the U.S. invasion in 2001 and then hiding evidence of the crime.

Karzai also selected Mohammad Fahim, a former militia chief with a reputation for human rights abuses and corruption, to be his running mate in the presidential race, to the chagrin of many Afghans and Western officials who had urged him to choose someone less controversial.

The questionable associations include a member of Karzai’s own family. His younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, an influential councilman in their home province of Kandahar, is widely believed to be a key figure in the illegal drug trafficking in the region though both Karzais vehemently deny the accusations. The New York Times also reported recently that Ahmed Wali Karzai is on the payroll of the CIA, helping recruit paramilitary fighters who operate under CIA direction.

Karzai has often bristled at the intense international pressure he has come under over corruption in his government. Although he acknowledges his administration faces problems, he has stressed that graft is also pervasive in the international contracting process in Afghanistan and that foreign aid is being wasted before it ever gets to the Afghan people.

The Karzai government unveiled an anti-corruption and major crimes unit last week to signal that he was determined to tackle the issue as international pressure ramps up, including a warning that U.S. military and financial support will be tied to reform.

As for the electoral fraud, if Karzai regretted it, he did not say so.

“This is not the right time to discuss investigations,” he told reporters in early November. “This is the time to move forward toward peace and stability.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.