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How Is Karzai's Anti-Foreign Rhetoric Playing In Kabul?

  • Charles Recknagel

President Hamid Karzai speaks to tribal leaders in Kandahar. His recent controversial comments might be intended mainly for a domestic audience.

President Hamid Karzai speaks to tribal leaders in Kandahar. His recent controversial comments might be intended mainly for a domestic audience.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's anti-foreign rhetoric has received attention in capitals worldwide, and Kabul is no exception.

Over the past five days, Karzai has blamed the international community for fraud in last year's presidential election and described the Western military coalition as coming close to being seen as invaders.

He is also reported to have told a meeting of parliamentary deputies on April 3 that if legislators "and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban."

But if press comment in Western capitals tends to see Karzai's statements as a foreign policy crisis, the Afghan media mostly views it in terms of domestic politics.

In Kabul, both progovernment and opposition papers have treated Karzai's remarks as outbursts of frustration by a politician who is having difficulty running the country.

"Some of the newspapers here in Kabul have supported Karzai's comments and blamed the National Assembly's rejection of the new election law,” explains Hamid Mohmand, editor of the Pashto-language section of RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul. “They say that this is the basis for Karzai's comments about Western governments."

Karzai's defenders portray him as fighting for greater presidential powers to rein in Afghanistan's fraud-ridden electoral process ahead of the next parliamentary elections in September.

It was immediately after the National Assembly on March 31 rejected Karzai's bid for greater powers -- including the right to appoint all five members of the previously mostly UN-appointed Electoral Complaints Commission -- that Karzai first lambasted the international community.

The parliament unanimously voted against Karzai's proposal on March 31, effectively siding with UN demands to keep the Complaints Commission independent. The UN and Karzai have been bickering for months over who should appoint the commission and how many non-Afghan election experts it should include.

The next day, Karzai responded by accusing foreign powers of trying to undermine him. He said unnamed embassies in Kabul orchestrated vast fraud and bribery during the August 2009 presidential elections in an effort to weaken his rule.

"The reason why [foreigners] were doing all this is a different issue -- they wanted to have a puppet regime, they wanted to have a servant government, or they wanted to bring [about] a different situation in this country,” Karzai said. “Thankfully God sent blessings on us and our nation was aware, and the commission was patriotic, the high-ranking members and other members of the commission were patriots."

‘Personal Agenda’

Karzai and his supporters were incensed last year when the Electoral Complaints Commission nullified nearly a million votes counted in Karzai's favor. When the election then went to a second round and challenger Abdullah Abdullah withdrew, saying the election was rigged, Karzai emerged as a weak second-term victor.

But if pro-Karzai newspapers in Kabul see the election dispute at the heart of his unprecedented criticism of his UN and NATO partners, opposition papers see a different motive.

"The newspapers which are in support of the opposition, especially the Northern Alliance, say that President Karzai's comments show that he has a personal agenda,” said Radio Free Afghanistan's Mohmand. “They talk mostly about corruption, saying that Western governments are pushing President Karzai to fight against corruption and that, because President Karzai's family members themselves are involved in corruption, he cannot fight against it. This is one of the main reasons for the differences between the Western governments and President Karzai."

Western governments have repeatedly pressed Karzai to curb corruption, saying that failure to do so could compromise military gains against the Taliban.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who made a surprise fly-in to Afghanistan on March 28, reportedly had tense exchanges with Karzai as he too pushed him to crack down on corruption, ensure independently monitored elections, and draw up a clear plan for how to reintegrate defecting Taliban fighters into society.

Karzai's sudden lashing out at the West just days after receiving Obama has prompted speculation that Karzai is now trying to strengthen his hand by stressing his independence from foreigners. But even opposition papers have stopped short of speculating what his ultimate strategy might be.

About Face

Karzai himself has sent enough mixed signals to make predicting the future almost impossible.

On April 2, the day after accusing the international community of falsifying last year's vote, he telephoned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to express his "appreciation for the contributions and sacrifices of the international community."

But on April 3, as Karzai met with some 60 members of parliament, he again stepped up his anti-foreign statements as he berated the deputies for rejecting his proposed election law.

His threat to "join the Taliban" was reportedly made at this meeting and was retold privately by one of the attendees to "The New York Times."

The words elicited an immediate reaction from Washington. "I can't explain what he said about the Taliban. He is the elected leader of Afghanistan,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on April 5. “We're working closely with him and his government.

“Ultimately, as I said last week, this is not about the relationship between President Karzai and the United States. This is about the relationship between President Karzai, his government, and his people,” Crowley said. “You know, ultimately, he has to demonstrate leadership and effectiveness to his people."

Karzai's reported threat to join the Taliban also got a reaction from the Taliban itself.

Afghanistan's "Sarnawesht" newspaper today quoted a statement by the militia saying "Hamid Karzai is our brother, and if the international forces leave Afghanistan, the Taliban are ready to talk to him about peace."

Meanwhile, Karzai has continued to underline his independence from his NATO partners.

He appeared to tell a meeting of tribal leaders in Kandahar on April 4 that they could have a voice in determining when the planned major military operation to clear the city of Taliban would take place.

"I know you are worried about this operation," he told the elders. "There will be no operation until you are happy."

Unease At Home

Observers in Kabul say that whatever Karzai's motives, his statements are proving as worrisome to many Afghans as they are to foreign capitals. That is because they risk damaging relations with his government's major foreign backers while offering no substitute allies to take their place.

"It's crystal clear that these [remarks] will damage Afghan national interests,” said Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University. “The United States is one of the powerful countries of the world and has shouldered about 70 percent of the burden in Afghanistan's struggle and has helped this country. And [Karzai] himself spoke in support of the United States throughout the Bush administration.”

“These remarks will do nothing but deprive Afghanistan of foreign aid and support and worsen the already difficult situation of the Afghans," Safi said.

Karzai's remarks not only leave some Afghans wondering what they would do without the West, but also many Western leaders wondering what they would do without Karzai.

The answer, so far, seems to be there is no acceptable alternative to the current president.

U.S. State Department spokesman Crowley said immediately after Karzai charged the international community with vote fraud: "We do not accept that judgment. We want to see effective governance all levels, at the national level, and a government led by President Karzai."

What remains to be seen is how Karzai's anti-foreign tone will play with the broader Afghan public.

In Private, A Different Story?

"The New York Times" reported last month -- before Karzai's current rash of statements -- that he has previously told some Afghan leaders privately he “believes America is trying to dominate the region and that he is the only one who can stand up to them."

“The New York Times” said he told some two dozen lunch guests at the presidential palace in January that "left alone, he could strike a deal with the Taliban, but that the United States refuses to allow him."

Now, Karzai has gone public with at least some of these alleged sentiments. And as he does, it will be left to a media battle within the country to help determine the public's reaction.

Radio Free Afghanistan's Mohmand notes that despite the growth of private media, state television still dominates in many parts of the country.

"Every television has access to every province of Afghanistan, private channels as well, but state television is the most viewed because their programs are most in accordance with the culture and the customs of the people. So in the remote areas, most of the people view state television," Mohmand said.

State television is firmly in Karzai's hands, giving him a domestic media advantage. It will be worth watching how he uses that advantage in the coming months as his quarrel with the international community develops.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report

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