Hard Times for Hamid Karzai

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It has been a rough couple of weeks for President Hamid Karzai. When a traffic accident caused by a U.S. army vehicle on May 29 sparked a riot in Kabul, protesters called for the president's head along with the ouster of foreign troops. Things haven't improved since. Anti-narcotics agencies are predicting the largest harvest of opium ever; the Taliban is at its strongest since it was ousted from power in 2001; and official corruption is at an all time high. Five explosions rocked Kabul in the past two days, killing one and wounding early 50. Is the golden boy once feted around the world as Afghanistan's great hope losing his shine?

Karzai's 18-month tenure as president may have brought an elected parliament, a constitution and some degree of economic prosperity to the capital, but those benefits are lost on a large segment of the population, which still has no electricity, no running water and no income. "When Karzai became president he told us there would be homes and jobs, but there is nothing for us," says Zoraiya, a 19-year-old former refugee who returned to Afghanistan when the Taliban fell. "If he gave us the fare, we'd move back to Pakistan." Such frustration is not limited to the slums, such as the one where Zoraiva (who only has one name) lives, but can be found even in middle-class enclaves where doctors work as taxi drivers. Afghan government officials counter that generous promises of cash from the international community have yet to materialize. A significant portion of the aid that does come in is spent on contractor salaries and the generators that power their offices.

Up until recently the affable and engaging politician has managed to tread the delicate line between maintaining protocols of the tribal system that has ruled Afghanistan for thousands of years, and the transparent, systematic approach required by the country's foreign investors. It was only a matter of time before he stumbled — which he did, spectacularly, on the issue of police reform. Karzai is charged by critics with having unilaterally supplanted qualified candidates for high-level positions with his own nominees — by all accounts ineligible, distasteful and powerful thugs. It wasn't cronyism so much as Karzai's very Afghan attempt to keep his enemies close at hand. The extremely unpopular decision has both Afghans and foreign observers in an uproar, but it's not without precedent. "The international community wanted a war on the cheap," points out Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. "They co-opted old mujahedin warlords and militia leaders to fight the Taliban." Now Karzai has to accommodate these figures, she adds, lest they make their own bids for power.

Karzai's blunt condemnation of the high civilian death toll resulting from Coalition battles against insurgents may have softened Afghan charges that he was a foreign puppet, but it raised hackles even further in diplomatic circles, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to come to his defense during a recent visit to Kabul. "I don't know anyone who is more admired and respected in the international community than President Karzai for his strength, for his wisdom and his courage," she told reporters.

Strong praise indeed, but until Karzai can make decisions based upon what's best for Afghanistan, rather than what pleases his backers, he won't be hearing those kinds of compliments from those who matter most — his people.

With reporting by Rachel Morarjee/Kabul