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U.S. troop pullout points up Karzai’s woes

As U.S. commanders prepare to bring home 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by year’s end, the drawdown is calling fresh attention to the tangle of woes confronting the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

For much of his second term, which got off to an acrimonious start in 2009 with a fraud-tainted election, the Afghan leader has seemingly lurched from one crisis to the next. But recent weeks have seen an unusual convergence of complex and, in some cases, long-festering problems.

The president is locked in an escalating confrontation with Afghan lawmakers over his bid to oust dozens of parliament members based on the ruling of what opponents charge was an illegally created tribunal. The morass of scandal enveloping the nation’s largest private financial institution, Kabul Bank, has sharply curtailed international aid.

Political rivals have stepped up accusations that Karzai intends to try to change the Afghan Constitution to allow him to lay claim to a third term in 2014. At the same time, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have intensified a campaign of attacks across the country, even as the Afghan president redoubles his appeals for peace talks.

Taken separately and together, these difficulties pose a potentially grave challenge to Karzai’s ability to govern, Western diplomats and other observers warn. Moreover, the West hopes to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces during Karzai’s current term, a highly sensitive period in which the coalition will desperately need effective leadership from his administration.

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As the heat of a dusty, flyblown Afghan summer takes hold, major changes loom in the American military and diplomatic hierarchy in Kabul. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was tapped to head the CIA, is to be replaced as commander in Afghanistan by Lt. Gen. John Allen, and veteran envoy Ryan Crocker will step in for departing Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry.

Both Petraeus and Eikenberry put considerable effort into forging a solid relationship with the often-mercurial Afghan leader, and both achieved only limited success. Recent months have been marked by escalating anti-Western outbursts on Karzai’s part, including a suggestion that the NATO force risked being viewed by Afghans as an occupying army.

Some of Eikenberry’s pent-up frustrations found unusual public expression when, in a speech to students last month in the western city of Herat, he unleashed a broadside clearly aimed at Karzai, though he did not mention him by name.

“I must tell you I find occasional comments from some of your leaders hurtful and inappropriate,” the ambassador said. “When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost, in terms of lives and treasure, hear themselves compared to occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people … they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.”

The rare public rebuke spotlighted the balancing act Karzai apparently believes he must attempt when it comes to the massive Western troop presence in a country that prides itself on resisting outsiders.

On the one hand, the president wishes to ally himself with public anger over perceived use of excessive force on the part of NATO’s armies, particularly when civilian casualties are involved. But the extent of his government’s reliance on the Western military is periodically thrown into stark relief, as during last week’s assault on the luxury Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, which was carried out in concert by the Taliban and an offshoot, the Haqqani network, and left at least 19 people dead.

Private assessments by Western officials of the response by Afghan police suggested that without the intervention of elite NATO forces and helicopters, the attackers might have carried out a lengthy siege, seizing hostages and methodically executing foreigners.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization subsequently hunted down and killed the Haqqani network commander who helped mastermind the attack, which was described by a spokesman for Karzai’s premier intelligence service as resulting from a “loophole” in security.

With President Obama having acknowledged that U.S. contacts with Taliban-allied figures have taken place as a prelude to possible negotiations, Karzai’s public pronouncements about the Taliban have a jarring dissonance. He consistently refers to the insurgents as brothers and compatriots, appealing to them to claim a rightful place in Afghanistan’s political life. But the record numbers of civilian deaths from insurgent attacks compel him, as he did Saturday, to denounce the brutality of “enemies of the people,” referring to the insurgents.

One of Karzai’s hallmark qualities is a tendency to deflect problems until they swell to unmanageable proportions. Both the Kabul Bank scandal and the parliamentary standoff have been many months in the making, with an array of missed opportunities at resolution.

The bank scandal — centering on Kabul Bank’s inability to account for nearly $900 million in funds, some of it loaned to members of Karzai’s inner circle — might be farcical if not for the seriousness of its repercussions. A loss of international and investor confidence in the banking sector could prove catastrophic to the country’s nascent financial system. And investigators have hinted that another major bank is in trouble.

The first high-level detentions in the Kabul Bank debacle came just last week, and even then the two former top executives were held only briefly and not formally charged.

The head of the central bank, which took over Kabul Bank after its near collapse, fled last week to the United States. Abdul Qadir Fitrat said he feared for his life because of attempts to bring key figures to account, including associates of the president. A Karzai spokesman accused him of treason.

Some of the lawmakers who find themselves on opposite sides of the dispute over who has the right to sit in parliament have one bit of common ground: blaming Karzai for the impasse. Parliament is widely viewed as one of the few real checks on the president’s power.

“President Karzai wants to have control over the parliament, and add and subtract lawmakers when he wants,” said Fawzia Kofi, a parliament member from Badakhshan province who opposed the president’s creation of a special tribunal that overruled the findings of the country’s main electoral body. “I believe our very democracy is at stake.”

laura.king@latimes.com


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