KABUL Just how far Hamid Karzai's reputation has fallen is summed up by a cartoon in the Economist, which shows the newly re-elected Afghan leader seated at a table -- between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Robert Mugabe.
The Afghan president, to be inaugurated for a second term at a Kabul ceremony on November 19, may not quite yet be as much of a pariah in the West as the leaders of Iran and Zimbabwe.
But that such a comparison seems apt at all is a sign of just how thoroughly his image has been trashed by a fraud-tainted vote, placing in doubt the future of the Western military commitment to shield his government from the Taliban.
The plunge in his status could not have come at more critical moment, with President Barack Obama poised to make a decision about whether to send tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops to add to the 110,000-strong Western force already there.
Without the reinforcements, Obama's commander on the ground, General Stanley McChrystal, says the 8-year-old war will probably be lost. Yet the U.S. administration is sharply divided over whether to accept the recommendation and escalate the war.
In a remarkable sign of the rift -- and how Karzai has become a factor in the debate -- Washington officials leaked word this week that U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, himself a predecessor to McChrystal as NATO commander in Afghanistan, had sent last-minute cables expressing reservations about a troop increase because of doubts about Karzai. [nN12397579]
WHO WILL COME?
Karzai's last inauguration five years ago was attended by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with Cheney calling the event a "historic moment in the life of the nation and in the history of human freedom."
It remains to be seen which dignitaries will attend this time, and how they will treat him on the day.
A flurry of senior officials -- the Australian prime minister, German defense minister, foreign ministers of Sweden and Norway -- have trekked to Afghanistan this week, but not one appeared in public with Karzai.
Western officials seem to be competing with each other to see who can sound toughest in demanding Karzai reform a government they describe as incompetent, corrupt and barely legitimate.
"I am not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm's way for a government that does not stand up to corruption," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said last week.
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said Karzai's legitimacy among Afghans was "at best in question right now, and at worst doesn't exist."
Karzai and his officials have responded with increasing bitterness. After the U.N. envoy in Kabul called for warlords to be excluded from the government, Karzai's Foreign Ministry issued a statement denouncing "political and diplomatic circles and propaganda agencies of certain foreign countries."
In an interview with U.S. television station PBS, Karzai said the West was to blame for bringing corruption to Afghanistan by running poorly managed and opaque aid programs.
Western troops in Afghanistan were looking out for their own countries' interests, he said, and if hundreds of U.N. foreign staff -- evacuated from the country after five were killed in an attack -- never returned, Afghanistan wouldn't miss them.
The Obama administration had difficulties with Karzai from the moment it took power from President George W. Bush, who used to speak regularly to Karzai and considered him a close ally.
The already strained relationship seemed to unravel during weeks of political limbo that followed the August 20 election.
Karzai insisted in public there was little fraud, despite widespread evidence, including entire villages where every single vote recorded was for him, often with round numbers of exactly 500 or 600 votes in multiple ballot boxes.
Karzai was finally confirmed in power this month, despite a U.N.-backed probe concluding nearly a third of votes cast for him were fake. With those phony ballots disallowed, he still led his main challenger but not by enough to avoid a second round.
U.S. Senator John Kerry succeeded in persuading Karzai to accept the amended results, but only after days of intense diplomacy. The second round was called off when Karzai's opponent Abdullah Abdullah withdrew, citing fears of more fraud.
Today, the West's eyes are on Karzai's next government, which he should name shortly after the inauguration.
Diplomats in Kabul say they are optimistic technocrats brought in to run key ministries in the past year will mainly stay in place, although they say they expect Karzai will also offer some spots to allies of warlords who helped him win votes.
Washington, the biggest donor, says it will give aid only to ministries where it trusts the minister and the fraud controls.
Some things don't change. In an article on the day of Karzai's last inauguration in 2004, the Washington Post wrote:
"Within the next week, Karzai is expected to name members of his new cabinet, whose makeup will be scrutinized for evidence that he is moving to curb the influence of regional warlords, who continue to dominate much of the country."
Five years later, he faces the exact same demands. But this time, the patience of his Western allies is wearing out.