Karzai's Kabul: Fit for a King?

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Hamid Karzai arrives in Kabul with Former Afghan King Mohammad Zaher Shah

Hamid Karzai is a lot tougher on Western donors than on his querulous countrymen. Afghanistan's interim leader Thursday escorted former king Zahir Shah back to Kabul after three decades in exile, last week upbraided international donors gathered in Kabul to discuss the country's budget. "So far we've only given hope to the Afghan people and not real activity," he said, slamming the international community's sluggish pace in delivering promised aid. "And don't expect us to give you a report every month," he said. "We'll give you a report when we want to give you a report."

Karzai's confidence in dealing with the international community may be growing, but his grip on power at home remains precarious. Just over halfway through his six-month term as the country's first post-Taliban leader, he still looks more like the Mayor of Kabul than the ruler of Afghanistan. The limits on his authority beyond the capital were underscored last week when opium-poppy farmers angry at Kabul's plans to eradicate their crops fired on government officials and blocked the main road linking Kabul to Pakistan. And attacks continue by anonymous groups opposed to the government and the international peacekeepers in Kabul. Infighting at the palace further threatens Karzai's ability to function. "Every day is a balancing act," says one senior European diplomat. "Different tribes, different warlords, the interests of the West, the interests of his own people. Just staying alive is a problem."

In Kabul, at least, Karzai has the help of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a 4,500-man contingent of mostly European peacekeepers. They have brought relative calm to the capital, but a recent series of attacks against ISAF itself, including the attempted rocketing of a barracks full of sleeping soldiers last week, have made locals skittish again. "We're seeing a pattern to destabilize the city, to cause unrest, and to cause people to lose faith in the interim administration and maybe even ISAF," says spokesman Flight Lieutenant Tony Marshall. "We're not going to be swayed by this, but we are vulnerable."

The hidden hand behind the campaign to destabilize the new order, according to the government, belongs to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the notorious Pashtun mujaheddin commander whose forces killed tens of thousands of people when they shelled Kabul in the early '90s during a power struggle with the forces that today comprise the Northern Alliance. TIME has learned that two days after the rocket attack on the peacekeepers, Afghani police raided a house in west Kabul and arrested eight men in possession of the same Chinese 107mm rockets. "They were Hekmatyar's men and their plan was to hit the main ISAF base and kill," says a senior police source. The arrests come two weeks after police detained more than 300 people suspected of plotting to kill Karzai and launch a campaign of "terror, abduction and sabotage." A Karzai adviser says that the alleged coup plotters were carrying documents from Hekmatyar's Hizb-I-Islami group, which it alleges is now working with remnants of al-Qaeda. The government also believes Hekmatyar was also behind last week's attempt to assassinate Defense Minister Mohamed Fahim in Jalalabad. "The demarcation line is no longer between ethnic groups, it's between moderates and fundamentalists," says Karzai's adviser. "And the hard-liners want us out."

Evidence linking Hekmatyar to the attacks has yet to be produced and some Western diplomats dismiss the "coup plot" as a government attempt to sideline rivals ahead of the June 22 'loya jirga,' a national assembly that will choose an interim government to rule for the next two years. Even if the Hekmatyar threat is exaggerated, Karzai must still deal with internal splits. "The cabinet is deeply divided," says the interim leader's adviser. "But that's the government given to him by the U.N. in Bonn and he has to work with it." A power struggle between Defense Minister Fahim, an ethnic Tajik from Panshir who assumed command of the Northern Alliance last year, and non-Panshiri ministers has turned government into a slugfest. "The minute (Karzai) leaves the country (Fahim) tries to get his men into new positions," says the adviser. The foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, meantime, has stacked the foreign ministry and Afghanistan's embassies with relatives and friends. "Karzai spends half his time putting out fires instead of rebuilding the country," says the European diplomat. "And time's the one thing he doesn't have."

Fires are expected to spread in the run-up to the loya jirga. "The next few months will be an especially fragile period," CIA director George Tenet recently told the U.S. Senate. Pashtun royalists hope people will rally around former King Mohammed Zahir Shah, even though he has returned with the constitutional rights of an ordinary citizen rather than those of a monarch. But Afghanistan's volatile ethnic divisions are just as likely to turn the frail 87-year-old king into a symbol of division than one of peace.

To expand government control beyond Kabul, both Karzai and the U.N. want an expanded peacekeeping mission. But the U.S. and participating countries have nixed the idea of beefing up the peacekeeping force, preferring to concentrate on building a new Afghan national army. Turkey, which takes over ISAF leadership from Britain in the next month, agreed to the role only after the U.S. agreed to pick up the tab. "It's a dead issue," says the European diplomat of an expanded mission. "ISAF countries just don't want to do it."

That leaves Karzai with little else to do but badger donors and hope the $4.5 billion in aid money pledged in Japan last December starts to arrive more quickly. He knows he must start delivering soon or his rivals will exploit growing frustrations over the lack of progress, especially among the thousands of armed men unlikely to win a place in the new army. For as Senator Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) warned on a recent visit to Kabul, "Without some nation building, the cycle of poverty to terrorism will be repeated."