Afghan President Karzai's anti-Western remarks leave many guessing sincerity

The bursts of angry rhetoric come in quick succession, like the thunderclaps of spring storms. These days, it's difficult to recall that President Hamid Karzai was once hailed by the West as a silver-tongued statesman and an unquestioned ally.

The Afghan leader's incendiary public statements have left even some of those who are close to him wondering: How much of the anti-Western sentiment he has voiced in the last week is genuine, and how much of it is political theater, calibrated for domestic consumption?

"With Karzai, you never know," said Ramazan Bashardost, an Afghan lawmaker who unsuccessfully ran against him in last summer's turbulent presidential election. "He says one thing in the morning, and another in the afternoon. And he might mean both of them."

Concern about Karzai's mercurial temperament is taking on strategic dimensions as the United States and its allies engage in a military buildup and prepare for what they describe as the most important offensive of the Afghanistan conflict, a campaign to wrest the southern province of Kandahar from the Taliban.

The province is the Afghan leader's birthplace and the home turf of his politically influential Popalzai tribe. Without the president's public backing, the campaign would be infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, Western military officials acknowledge.

However, relations with Washington are so bad that the White House hinted Tuesday that it might withdraw an invitation to visit in May, which was extended during President Obama's visit to Kabul, the Afghan capital, late last month. Obama's criticism of the Afghan leadership then may have helped launch the current contretemps.

If the Afghan president falters now, it will cast doubt on the nearly decade-long partnership between him and the United States, forged in the smoldering aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks when Karzai returned from exile to help muster resistance to the Taliban among Pashtun people.

Though sometimes rocky, the alliance has largely endured, based on the common goal of keeping the insurgency at bay and preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Ill feeling between Karzai and Washington has simmered for at least a year, roughly coinciding with the change of U.S. administrations. It deepened with last summer's fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election.

But in the course of the last week, the bad blood has practically splattered the walls.

On Thursday, Karzai told election officials in a rambling speech that foreigners, not Afghans, bore responsibility for massive fraud in the August presidential balloting.

Two days later, speaking to lawmakers, Karzai inveighed against foreign meddling that he said was fueling support for the insurgency, adding, in a flush of hyperbole, that perhaps he'd join the Taliban himself. (A Taliban spokesman derided him as a Western "puppet" who wouldn't be welcome.)

Then, in an interview aired Monday on the BBC, Karzai brushed off a series of rebukes from Washington, making his previous accusations even more pointedly anti-American.

Karzai was said to have been angered and offended when Obama delivered a critique on corruption during the Kabul trip, which was publicized by White House aides. Good governance is a key element of new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, and Karzai has been under heavy pressure to clean up graft in his administration.

Obama came into office intent on revamping strategy in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush had enjoyed a cordial relationship with Karzai, but many in the Obama administration thought it had come at the expense of delivering a clear demand that Karzai institute sweeping reforms. In the meantime, the Taliban had regrouped and seized the initiative.

One factor that makes it difficult to calm the storm is that there are few U.S. figures with whom the Afghan leader seems to feel a genuine rapport. Vice President Joe Biden and Obama's special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, both reportedly have gotten into shouting matches with Karzai. There are also lingering tensions with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who last year warned Washington in diplomatic cables that Karzai was an unreliable partner.

Some analysts see Karzai's spate of anti-foreigner rhetoric as a classic crowd-pleasing tactic, playing to Afghanistan's centuries-old mistrust of outsiders. A ringing defense of Afghan sovereignty is rarely unpopular in this country.

There are elements of Karzai's hands-off message that the West embraces. In both U.S. military and diplomatic circles, "Afghan-owned" is a key catchphrase, referring to the long-term goal of Afghanistan taking responsibility for its own security and political destiny, eventually enabling Western forces to withdraw.

But other analysts regard the president's behavior as erratic, and they attribute it to various factors: Karzai's isolation in his presidential palace, his over-dependence on an insular clique of advisors, a tendency toward emotionalism that is exacerbated by stress and weariness.

"Some of those in the [presidential] palace try to keep him happy with the wrong analysis, the wrong information," said lawmaker Shukria Barakzai. "And there is the problem of micromanagement, of not enough thinking of the country's broader interests."

Observing Karzai at close range, some see years of pent-up frustration bursting forth.

"He was very unhappy and very, very angry," said lawmaker Daoud Sultanzoy, recounting Saturday's stormy meeting with parliament members. Parliament's lower house had sought to curtail Karzai's power to pick the overseers of parliamentary elections scheduled to take place this year, and the president reacted with fury.

Some senior Western diplomats in Kabul are sanguine about Karzai's heated language, calling it an effort to blow off steam and create a bulwark against criticism from opponents if he accedes to the wishes of the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization on some points.

There are ample opportunities for Karzai to disassociate himself from specific Western actions, such as military actions that cause civilian casualties, while not challenging overarching policy goals.

NATO said Tuesday that four civilians had died in an airstrike in southern Afghanistan. Separately, it said it was investigating the deaths of a child and three other apparent civilians during fighting with insurgents in the east. Also this week, NATO acknowledged responsibility for the February deaths of five civilians in Paktia province, including a teenage girl and two pregnant women.

But even if Karzai can rally public support on issues such as civilian casualties, many observers see him as essentially adrift in his leadership role.

"He has never had a real agenda; he just reacts to events," said Aziz Rafiee, the director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, a pro-democracy group. "There is no long-term vision for the country."

Karzai's recent remarks have caused far less a stir at home, but Afghans who had heard of his statements reacted with a mixture of worry and patriotic pride.

"These things he says about the West are only causing problems for him and for the country," fretted 22-year-old Mohammed Aimal, an office worker in Kabul.

But Abdul Wahed, a 33-year-old government employee, disagreed.

"We didn't have a president or a government before we had Karzai; he's a good man," he said. "It's not his job to save the Americans."

laura.king@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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