It's about time; Obama ready to cut Karzai adrift

Reply Fri 23 Jan, 2009 11:03 am
It's about time. Karzai has long been known to be corrupt. ---BBB

Obama ready to cut Karzai adrift
As support for Afghan leader wanes, rivals go to Washington for meeting with new President
By Jerome Starkey and Kim Sengupta in Kabul
Friday, 23 January 2009
Reuters & Independent.co.uk Web

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai may find himself on the receiving end of President Obama's axe-wielding

Barack Obama's arrival in the White House and the wind of change sweeping through Washington could lead to the ousting from power of Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, The Independent has learnt.

International support for Mr Karzai, who was once the darling of the West, has waned spectacularly, amid worsening violence, endemic corruption and weak leadership. But until very recently, diplomats insisted there were no viable alternatives even as fighting has intensified and the Taliban insurgency in the south has grown. But four key figures believed to be challenging Mr Karzai have arrived in Washington for meetings with Obama administration officials this week. There is now talk of a "dream ticket" that would see the main challengers run together to unite the country's various ethnic groups and wrest control away from Mr Karzai.

"The Americans aren't going to determine the outcome of the election, but they could suggest to people they put their differences aside and form a dream ticket," said a senior US analyst in Kabul.

Mr Obama has already started getting to grips with the challenge of Afghanistan; he received a briefing on the coming American troop "surge" from General David Petraeus on Wednesday, his first full day in the Oval Office. Last night, Mr Obama appointed the veteran US diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, as his new special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The unofficial delegation to Washington was made up of three ex-ministers and a serving governor. Dr Abdullah Abdullah was the foreign minister, Dr Ashraf Ghani served as finance minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali was interior minister and Gul Agha Sherzai is the governor of the eastern province of Nangahar, where US troops are based. When Mr Obama visited Afghanistan in July he met Governor Sherzai in Jalalabad, even before he saw President Karzai in Kabul. "They are not going to blindly back President Karzai like the Bush administration did for so long," said John Dempsey, head of the United States Institute of Peace in Kabul. On the ground in Afghanistan, Camp Bastion in Helmand province is already becoming the symbol of the Americanisation of the war in the south. US forces have started arriving and will be joined by many more. Airfields are to be built to bring in transport and warplanes in preparation for a coming offensive with the dispatch of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Karzai officials had hoped Hillary Clinton, now the US Secretary of State, would prove their ally in White House. But those hopes were dashed last week when she branded Afghanistan a "narco-state" with a government "plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption" during her confirmation hearing.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president's brother, was named last October in leaked US intelligence reports as a major narco-trafficker. The allegations, vigorously denied by both men, are widespread in Afghanistan but, until then, Western officials had refused to corroborate them. But the leak was seen as a shot across Mr Karzai's bows from the Bush administration, to make him clean up his act and rein in his brother. The flurry of criticism suggests the international community is less than happy with his response. Mrs Clinton's remarks coincided with stinging criticism from Nato's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who said corrupt and inefficient government was as much to blame for instability as the insurgents. Writing in The Washington Post, he said: "The basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it's too little good governance."

Individually, Mr Karzai's rivals risk splitting their support base. Together, diplomats are optimistic they could win the election, expected next summer, and reinvigorate a jaded population. "We need to create a new momentum, like in 2001," said Haroun Mir, co-founder of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies. "Change will bring hope, because right now the momentum is with the Taliban."

The planning for new policies on Afghanistan has been going on for months by Pentagon and State Department staff in anticipation of Mr Obama's inauguration. One official said: "We have to come up with fresh innovative ideas on counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics, governance, development. Now they are drafting in people from other departments. There is no doubt we neglected Afghanistan after the Taliban fell but there is a worry that we may be trying to do too much, too fast now."

A slew of initiatives are on the way. They include the arming of local groups to fight the Taliban, in the way Sunni militias were used against insurgents by General Petraeus in Iraq.

US, British and Nato forces will also play a much more direct role in counter-narcotics operations in an effort to tackle Afghanistan's heroin trade which provides 93 per cent of the world's supply of the drug.

Some policy analysts insist it is impossible to blame the Afghan president for all his country's ills. They say the international community has been ineffective, often divided and international military effort was focused on catching terrorists, not quelling an insurgency for far too long.

British anger at Taliban patients

British soldiers complain that they are being forced to share hospital facilities in Afghanistan with Taliban fighters. Enemy combatants are treated at the Camp Bastion Field Hospital in line with the Geneva Convention. But personnel are objecting to the traditional war-time practice. "My friends... were waking up in the hospital to find Taliban in the bed next to them," one soldier said. "The last thing they want to see when they come round is the Taliban on the same ward. It's just not right."

The Ministry of Defence said it had not received any complaints.

The challengers: Who might replace Karzai?

Gul Agha Sherzai

A veteran of the wars against the Soviets, Mr Sherzai (whose name means "son of a lion") is a former governor of Kandahar criticised for human rights abuses. He escaped assassination in 2006.

Dr Abdullah Abdullah

Although half Pashtun, he is considered a leader of Afghanistan's Tajik population. He was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2001 and served until 2006.

Ali Ahmad Jalali

An ethnic Pashtun and former colonel, Jalali joined the anti-Soviet resistance after the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. He took US citizenship and spent 20 years broadcasting for Voice of America.

Dr Ashraf Ghani

An ethnic Pashtun, he studied in America, at Colombia University. He worked at the World Bank from 1991 to 2001, when he returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 24 years. From 2002-04 he was Finance Minister and oversaw the successful transition to Afghanistan's new currency.
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Reply Fri 30 Jan, 2009 09:46 am
Will Obama support Karzai's re-election in Afghanistan?
McClatchy - 1/30/08

WASHINGTON " The announcement on Thursday that Afghanistan's second presidential election since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001 will be held on Aug. 20 poses a critical question for the Obama administration: Should it favor a second term for President Hamid Karzai?

Relations between Karzai and the U.S. are worse than at any time in the past eight years. Each side accuses the other of conduct that has enabled the revival of the Taliban and soured many ordinary Afghans on the Kabul government and its international backers.

U.S. and European officials say they've grown frustrated by Karzai's failure to curb corruption, cronyism and incompetence, and they say he's refused to crack down on powerful officials, allegedly including one of his brothers, who are involved in the world's largest opium trade.

Karzai has grown increasingly angry at the mounting civilian casualties in U.S.-led military operations and has long complained that Washington has failed to push Pakistan to halt secret support for the Taliban. He said that his policies have been undermined by warlords the U.S. paid to keep order while U.S. troops were diverted to Iraq.

Yet close cooperation between the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition will be vital if a new strategy the Obama administration is developing, including sending another 30,000 U.S. troops, is to succeed in ending the insurgency, experts said.

"What we have seen is a fraying of the relationship and mounting distrust on both sides," said Daniel Markey, a Council on Foreign Affairs fellow who worked on Afghanistan policy at the State Department.

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced in Kabul that the elections would be held on Aug. 20, three months later than set by the Afghan constitution, to allow more time for preparation.

Some experts think that Obama should favor an Afghan leader who's better able than Karzai to extend his writ beyond Kabul by building a government that can provide police protection, job-training, education, healthcare to some of the world's most destitute people.

Karzai "has forfeited the legitimacy that he had and the mandate that he received in 2004 (when he was elected)," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Middle East Institute. "He personifies for most Afghans all that has been going wrong."

Some top aides to Obama, who last summer criticized Karzai's government for not getting "out of the bunker," may share that view " among them Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden's frustration with the worsening situation in Afghanistan emerged during a meeting he held earlier this month with Karzai in Kabul before he resigned his Senate seat.

"It was a terse exchange," said a State Department official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Biden came on strong, talking a lot about the failures of the Afghan government to extend its authority."

Afghan news reports said that five potential Karzai rivals attended Obama's inauguration in apparent bids to win support from the new administration. State Department officials, however, said they came as private citizens, and there were no private meetings.

One of the five, Ali Jalali, an Afghan-American who served as Karzai's first interior minister and now teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, called the reports "baseless rumors."

Jalali acknowledged, however, that he's "seriously considering" opposing Karzai for "failing to deliver" and because "people have lost trust in the government."

Yet Obama would find himself in an awkward position if he abandoned Karzai.

U.S. officials and other experts acknowledged that Karzai is the only prominent Afghan who commands enough support among the country's divergent ethnic groups, especially the Pashtun tribes in the Taliban heartlands in the east and south, to win a national election.

Public opinion surveys conducted for the State Department make it "very clear that while Karzai has lost quite a bit of support, he's still liked," the State Department official said. "He is still the leading candidate."

Moreover, the U.S. has no choice but to ensure " in the words of several U.S. officials " a "level playing field" for the election. That means that all major candidates, including Karzai, have to be assured access to news media and the security and helicopters they need to campaign in a violence-wracked country with few roads.
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