February 12, 2009 / 11:58 AM / 11 years ago

U.S. raises hackles with Karzai, looks for change

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Like a shaky marriage after seven years, Washington’s love affair with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is on the rocks.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai listens to a speech during the 45th Conference on Security Policy in Munich February 8, 2009. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Once a darling of the Bush administration, Karzai is out of favor with the Obama team who have not called publicly for his ouster but view him as a problem rather than a solution.

President Barack Obama, in his first White House news conference this week, described Karzai’s government as “very detached” from its people. Obama wants a “more-for-more” strategy — the more Washington gives, the more it wants back.

“There is a level of frustration in the international community with Afghanistan’s inability to spread governance outward more rapidly and efficiently end the corruption,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

After swiftly dispatching the Taliban government, Western forces are now struggling against insurgent attacks that rose by a third last year in Afghanistan and a campaign of suicide bombing that has heightened insecurity.

Just as happened during the peak of Iraqi violence in 2006 and 2007 when the Bush administration criticized Iraqi political leaders, so the Obama administration is turning on Karzai, who faces re-election in August.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had harsh words for Karzai’s leadership, labeling Afghanistan a “narco state” in her confirmation hearings in January.

For his part, Karzai has become more critical of the West, particularly of U.S. and NATO forces for causing civilian casualties. He says there has been progress under his leadership and calls tensions with the new administration “soft wrestling.”

“The winner will be, God willing, Afghanistan,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday.

With U.S. policy on Afghanistan under review as Obama contemplates almost doubling the number of U.S. troops there to around 60,000, officials are calling on Karzai to do more to tackle rampant corruption and crack down on the opium trade.

Experts expect the United States to deal more closely with provincial leaders than Karzai, a plan Vice President Joe Biden made clear in talks with Karzai in Kabul in January. Regime change is not being actively pushed but many are asking about the alternatives.

BLAME GAME

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said Karzai had made mistakes but the rhetoric against him was counterproductive and the attacks were too personal.

“They have started off on the wrong footing. It has not been a respectful approach. In that region, how you deal with people is as important as what you do,” said Afghan-born Khalilzad, who knows Karzai well.

Khalilzad said Biden’s January visit to Kabul left the impression that Washington viewed Pakistan as being far more important and that central government would be ignored.

“In his mind, he (Karzai) read that we (the United States) will subordinate you to Pakistan,” said Khalilzad, also a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations.

“Some of the leaks and ideas that people are associating with the administration, that they will ignore the central government and only work with local leaders, does not go over very well,” he added.

Afghanistan expert Karin von Hippel agreed public pressure would not help.

“In the best circumstance they work with him behind the scenes, help him counter corruption and they reduce things that upset the Afghan public such as civilian casualties,” said von Hippel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There was also a risk of being seen as interfering in the elections, said Lisa Curtis, a senior research analyst on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

“It is a very unstable time and we are at a critical juncture. The best policy would be on focusing that the elections are free and fair,” she said.

Former U.S. officials and diplomats say the U.S. attacks on Karzai could boost anti-Americanism and Western nations must also accept blame for Afghanistan’s problems.

“Our record in Afghanistan over the past seven years is not very good and so I think it is important not to go too far to shift the blame,” said James Dobbins, a former special envoy to Afghanistan now with the Rand Corporation.

There was also a need to acknowledge the impact of civilian casualties caused by air strikes, an issue that has outraged Afghans and led to an erosion of support for foreign forces.

Afghan analyst and writer Qaseem Akhgar said Western nations also needed to have a clear and transparent strategy.

“They need to coordinate among themselves and with the Afghan government their military, political and development programs. Otherwise, we will have more failures in the future in Afghanistan.”

Additional reporting by Jon Hemming, Sayed Salahuddin and Golnar Motevalli in Kabul; Editing by Cynthia Osterman.

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