Why Afghanistan's Leader Wants American Bodyguards

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Afghan president Hamid Karzai (second from left) meets with U.S. officials in early July.

To keep your friends close but your enemies closer is a difficult thing to do in Afghanistan, where it can often be hard telling one from the other. For President Hamid Karzai there can be no room for error, and so this weekend he dismissed his Afghan bodyguards and replaced them with 46 American soldiers. It's an ominous sign. "There are currently very credible threats against the President," says a Western diplomatic source.

The shift risks being seen as a slap in the face to extremely powerful interests in Kabul. In the first days after the Taliban's fall Karzai kept a small band of Pashtun soldiers from his Kandahari home close to him. But tensions with the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance forces, who fought the Taliban for close to six years and have now assumed control of much of the government, meant the future president had to send his soldiers away. Since then his personal security has been in the hands of the most formidable Northern Alliance commander in Afghanistan, defense minister Mohammed Fahim. Executive rule and the presidency rests with Karzai, but in a country where military might marks authority, a great deal of power resides with the general. And now some of his friends insist he's lost face. "It's an insult to the defense minister," says a commander loyal to Fahim.

But Karzai's switch of faith from Fahim to the Americans is not so much an indictment of the general's ability as it is an indication of a declining level of trust. "We know there could be a great political cost from doing this," says the Western diplomat, "but that price, no matter how much, will be less than losing the president." Two weeks ago Kabul lost a key figure to assassins' bullets, deputy president and public works minister Haji Abdul Qadir. The loss was of more than another politician; Qadir was Karzai's rallying point for the vast Pashtun south which feels excluded — and threatened — by the Northern Alliance. Though the Qadir killing is most likely related to the drug trade, local power plays or revenge against a mujahedin warrior who made many enemies, it has scared Afghanistan's political elite.

Karzai is not alone in taking extra precautions. Presidential spokesman Fazel Akbar told TIME a core of senior ministers has also adopted U.S. bodyguards. But, he says, it's all temporary and should not be seen by defense minister Fahim's supporters as a slight. "The Americans are helping to build the national army and now they are helping with security in the presidential palace; it's all the same thing," he says. Others don't see it that way.

"It doesn't create a good feeling for Afghans to see their president have foreign security guards, to see a president who doesn't have homegrown security," former Kabul mayor Fazel Karim Aymaq told TIME. "As the people see this it may create a longer term problem." A respected Northern Alliance commander loyal to Fahim, Aymaq was recently replaced as mayor, a move that has further antagonized Karzai's political rivals. Western sources cite incompetence and a lack of management as the reason and Aymaq concedes the president had questioned his performance.

Akbar insists that Afghans shouldn't read too much into this. "This will be only for a short time," he says. "It doesn't mean we want to give all security to the Americans."