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But the corruption was less troubling, in a way, than Karzai's steady drift toward anti-American rhetoric. In June he made the ridiculous assertion that the U.S. was involved in a rocket attack on his peace jirga. In October he admitted he had received "bags of cash" from the Iranians an act of "patriotism" that he compared to receiving support from the U.S. His relationship with U.S. commanding general David Petraeus turned very rocky as Karzai noisily protested the most effective U.S. tactics in the war night raids against Taliban leaders by special-ops teams. In late November, he stormed out of a meeting with Petraeus about the presence of private Western security contractors. After meeting with Karzai in mid-November, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid reported that the Afghan President was turning against the West: "What is clear is that he no longer supports the 'war on terrorism' as defined by Washington, and he sees NATO's military surge in the south as unhelpful."
Ranking U.S. officials don't take such talk very seriously. The rhetoric, they argue, is mostly for the benefit of a war-weary public that has never had a very high tolerance for foreign troops. And that is true, but there has also been a newly purposeful direction to Karzai's rants. He spent the year trying to move closer to his regional neighbors Pakistan and Iran and to open reconciliation talks with the Taliban. Those talks came a cropper when the leading "Taliban" interlocutor turned out to be an impostor, but whether and how to engage with his adversaries remains a real policy difference between Karzai and the U.S. military, if not the State Department: the Afghan President appears more interested in making a deal with the Taliban than Petraeus is.
Karzai's growing frustration with the endless war and the endless demands from his sponsors that he try harder to be an effective leader is matched by a growing frustration within the Obama Administration, which is increasingly skeptical about the massive resources being shoveled into this ever frustrating contest. The original casus belli al-Qaeda is barely present at all in Afghanistan now. Its members are hunkered down across the border in Pakistan's frontier territories, and it may be shifting some of its operations to Yemen, as U.S. Predator-drone attacks in Pakistan take their toll. Meanwhile, the U.S. is suffering an extended, and perhaps historic, economic languor and massive budget deficits; the defense budget will not be immune to cuts in the coming year. And Afghanistanism seems likely to become a national debate before long: Is building roads and police stations in Afghanistan more important than doing so at home?
There are no immediate plans to abandon the fray indeed, at Karzai's behest, NATO has agreed to a few more seasons of fighting, with a 2014 deadline but there is a palpable desire in the U.S. and among the NATO allies to wind things down as quickly as possible, leaving the Afghan security forces to carry the fight. Not even the strongest war opponents in the Obama Administration believe that the U.S. should completely abandon Afghanistan (and the political strategists in the White House know it would be disastrous to do so before the President's 2012 re-election campaign). At the very least, the effort to train and equip the Afghan security forces is likely to continue in perpetuity.
But in 2010, the notion of Hamid Karzai as a solid, legitimate Afghan leader died a slow, wasting death. "The question we're all asking now," an American official in Kabul told me recently, "is whether we can succeed here without him."
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