President Hamid Karzai is increasingly isolated and has surrounded himself with an inner circle of advisers who are urging him to move closer to Iran and Pakistan as the U.S. draws down its role in Afghanistan, several friends and aides tell The Associated Press.
Their advice is echoed in Karzai's anti-West rhetoric, which has heightened both in his public speeches and in private. He met recently with Iran's defense minister, and constantly cautions against trusting the U.S. to have Afghanistan's best interests at heart.
Several of Karzai's close friends and advisers now speak of a president whose doors have closed to all but one narrow faction and who refuses to listen to dissenting opinions. They say people allowed to see the president are vetted by an inner circle of religious conservatives who belong to a nonviolent wing of Hizb-i-Islami, a radical Islamic group whose relentless attacks on American soldiers forced the U.S. to withdraw from bases in northeastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
The group's leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was once an American ally but has since been declared a terrorist by the United States.
Although Hekmatyar shares the Taliban's goal of an Islamic regime, his men have also fought Taliban militants over the past year, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is said to despise him. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Hekmatyar spent five years in exile in Iran.
Inside Afghanistan's presidential palace, Iran, Pakistan and China are most often referred to as reliable allies, according to Karzai's friends and advisers. Last year, Karzai openly acknowledged taking "bags" of money from Iran to finance his administration.
"A lot of Afghans are very concerned about the direction the country is taking, moving away from the international community ... toward a more conservative practice in which the religious people and warlords have more power," Human Rights of Afghanistan Commissioner Nader Nadery said.
"Consistently his aides are pushing him toward Iran and Pakistan," Nadery said. "All those who are managing and controlling his schedule, providing appointments, all see the advantages of breaking with the international community."
Snubbing the U.S.
Karzai seemed to go out of his way to snub the United States in the days leading up to President Barack Obama's address Wednesday announcing an initial withdrawal of 30,000 U.S. soldiers by next summer.
He stood shoulder to shoulder this week with Ahmad Vahidi, the first Iranian defense minister to visit Afghanistan since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. He also announced he would attend an anti-terrorism conference in Tehran later this month, while at the same time questioning the sincerity of U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
"His timing is confusing," Nadery said. "It is not wise for a politician to come out with such statements at a time when the troop contribution to Afghanistan is being hotly debated in Washington."
One adviser whose friendship with Karzai spans decades said he had consistently warned the president against engaging in public battles with the United States, urging closed-door diplomacy instead.
Six months ago, he says an angry Karzai called him to the presidential palace.
"The president said, 'You are always saying be careful, be careful, telling me what is wrong.' And then he told me to never call him again. And since then I have not been able to see him and I am still an 'adviser,'" he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he says he still values his friendship with Karzai. "He will always be my friend but I am worried about him."
Others have expressed similar concerns. They say over the last year Karzai has gradually distanced himself from confidantes who urged a more cooperative and less strident approach to U.S. relations.
A second adviser told the AP that participants at a recent Afghan security council meeting left "shaking their head at the flip the president has made" away from the U.S. and its Western allies and toward Iran and Pakistan.
"We are worried about our old friend," he said.
Looking for protection
Kabul is rife with speculation about the president's recent behavior and statements of late, as well as the growing influence of Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami organization.
In part, Nadery blamed Karzai's disappointment at not getting a strategic forces agreement with the United States that would allow for U.S. bases in Afghanistan as well as give the president protection and negotiation room with Washington. Instead, the document the U.S. gave to Karzai spoke only of a complete withdrawal, he said.
The United States has said it will have all its fighting forces out of Afghanistan by 2014 and that the security of Afghanistan will be turned over to Afghan forces. The U.S. has not asked for any bases or centers to remain under its control.
"I think the reality of their complete withdrawal has struck home," Nadery said. "Now he sees they may go and they don't want a (military) presence here, there were no bases that they requested and perhaps now he is thinking, 'Who will protect me?' And he has turned to Hizb-i-Islami and conservative elements in the country like those on the Ulema (clerics) Council, former warlords, as well as getting closer to Pakistan and to Iran."
A nonviolent faction of Hizb-i-Islami was created last year with the express purpose of registering as a political party. Although its members publicly disavowed violence, they have privately said they supported Hekmatyar.
"We have a proverb of sorts in Afghanistan: Once a Hizb-i-Islami, always a Hizb-i-Islami," Nadery said.
Hizb-i-Islami used widespread intimidation to elect dozens of its candidates in provincial elections. The group has also infiltrated government administration, and at least five of the country's governors are members of its nonviolent faction, according to Nader and others who closely follow Afghan politics.
The growing influence of Hizb-i-Islami, some analysts warn, is also possibly paving the way for another civil war in Afghanistan once the U.S. and NATO withdrawal is complete.
Animosity between Hizb-i-Islami and leaders of Afghanistan's minority ethnic groups runs deep. Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban are both dominated by Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.
Fahim Dashti, an ethnic Tajik and former editor of the defunct Kabul Weekly, told the AP that militia groups in northern Afghanistan have rearmed, frightened by the growing influence of Hizb-e-Islami in the government and the future implications of peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Karzai's attempts to bring Hekmatyar's party into an earlier Afghan government got him into trouble with the Northern Alliance, which loosely represents minority ethnic groups.
At the height of Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s, Karzai sought to bring Hekmatyar into Kabul to bridge the differences between him and Ahmed Shah Masood, an ethnic Tajik who was ruling the capital at the time.
Karzai's attempts at mediation landed him in jail, beaten by members of the Northern Alliance. He escaped in a vehicle provided by Hekmatyar and driven by Gul Rahman, who was arrested by the United States in 2004 for his alleged links to terrorism. The AP revealed that he was the first Afghan to die in U.S. custody from ill treatment in a facility near the Kabul airport known by inmates as the Saltpit.
Hekmatyar, who is in his mid-60s, has been an on-again, off-again ally of the United States over the past several decades. He was a key beneficiary of the U.S. in the 1980s during the fight against invading Russian soldiers.
According to testimony from Guantanamo prisoners, Hekmatyar sheltered Osama bin Laden for nearly one year after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001.
From his bases in Kunar and Nuristan provinces, Hekmatyar kept bin Laden safe until sometime in 2003 when he helped the al-Qaida leader escape to Pakistan, where he was killed by U.S. commandos last month.
Hekmatyar, whose men have also attacked Afghan security forces, sent a delegation to Kabul last year to discuss a formal reconciliation. The delegation has since delivered a blueprint which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan as well as an interim government until new elections can be held.
Some think Hizb-i-Islami may be achieving at least some of its goals more effectively from within the existing government.
"What I see is very dangerous not just for Afghanistan and the region but for the world," Dashti said. He called the U.S. phased withdrawal "a strategy of escape."