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Afghan President Karzai Presents Challenge To U.S.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This week, we've been exploring the history of Afghanistan and how it informs current U.S. efforts to stabilize the country. Today, we're going to hear about one of the many challenges facing the U.S., and it's one man, Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.

Nine years ago, Karzai was plucked from obscurity to lead the country. At the time, he had strong support from the U.S. But over the years, that relationship has deteriorated, so much so that Karzai is now viewed not as a solution to Afghanistan's problems but as a problem himself.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

(Soundbite of music)

JACKIE NORTHAM: On a chilly mid-November morning in Kabul last year, Hamid Karzai was ushered into office for a second time as Afghanistan's president. Wearing his colorful trademark cape, or chapan, and a lambskin hat, Karzai laid out his vision for the next five years.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Speaking foreign language).

NORTHAM: Karzai promised to tackle rampant corruption, end the culture of impunity among the ruling elite in Afghanistan and create good governance. But despite the soaring rhetoric, Karzai was for many in the crowd a discredited figure, his re-election tainted by fraud. It wasn't always like this.

Unidentified Man #1: Afghan leaders signed an agreement today to create a temporary administration for the war-torn nation. Anti-Taliban leader Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet will...

NORTHAM: There were great hopes for Karzai nine years ago, when he first emerged as Afghanistan's leader. The U.S. had just overthrown the Taliban, and Karzai was chosen by prominent Afghan political figures to head an interim government.

Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun from Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. He initially supported the Taliban but later came to oppose the group. Abdullah Abdullah, once an ally but now a political rival, says at the time, Karzai seemed the right fit.

Dr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Afghan Politician): My impression of him was a patriotic person, an educated person, and he was also against the Taliban. He was not extremist and so on and so forth.

NORTHAM: But the news that Karzai had been named leader astonished many people who knew him, including Yusuf Pashtun, who has known Karzai since he was a teenager and is now a senior advisor to the president.

Mr. YUSUF PASHTUN (Advisor to President Hamid Karzai): I don't think I -I never heard from him to be so much ambitious or showing ambition that one day he should be president. Until I heard it on the radio, we never knew that it will happen.

NORTHAM: Masood Farivar, the general manager of Salam Watandar, a national radio network, says the then-44-year-old Karzai lacked the necessary skills to bring Afghans together after so many years of war.

Mr. MASOOD FARIVAR (General Manager, Salam Watandar): If you ask the average Afghan what they think about Karzai, the first thing they would tell you is that he is not a very - he has not proved to be a very strong leader. And what Afghanistan, after three decades of war, needed was a strong leader to unify the country.

NORTHAM: Farivar says Karzai has struggled for legitimacy throughout his presidency. Soon after taking power, he traveled the country to try to garner support and bring the warring factions together. In September 2002, during a visit to Kandahar, there was an attempt on his life.

(Soundbite of archived video)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NORTHAM: This video shows a gunman opening fire on Karzai's SUV. In the melee, he is seen crouching in the back seat.

(Soundbite of archived video)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

NORTHAM: It was the first of several assassination attempts on Karzai, and Farivar says it helped shape his governing style.

(Soundbite of car motor)

Throughout the busy streets of the capital are large billboards of Karzai smiling down at his people. Over the years, Karzai's political reach has become increasingly limited to the city, and he's become known as the mayor of Kabul, hunkering down in his palace, surrounded by a small coterie of advisors. And not all of them are helpful, says Sima Samar, a former minister for women's affairs in the Karzai government and now the head of the Independent Human Rights Commission.

Dr. SIMA SAMAR (Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission): The people who get the access to him is the one who is kind of bringing false information to him: Yes, Mr. President, everything is fine, and everything is going in the right direction. The people who are critical of him do not get access to him. Of course it's not healthy.

NORTHAM: People who know Karzai says he has a conspiratorial streak, suffers from depression and lashes out when he feels he's being criticized. As the security situation continued to deteriorate, and the pressure from the U.S. increased, Karzai has become even more mercurial, especially in his dealings with Washington.

Hekmat Karzai is the president's cousin and the director of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies.

Mr. HEKMAT KARZAI (Director, Center for Conflict and Peace Studies): I think there's this tactical battle that's going back and forth between the United States and between President Karzai, and both sides have different pressure points.

NORTHAM: On the one hand, Karzai's under enormous U.S. pressure to clean up corruption, including amongst members of his family, and develop a viable central government. On the other, the president is publicly critical of U.S. strategy, constantly complaining about civilian casualties during American military raids.

By standing up to the U.S., Karzai has, to some extent, bolstered his domestic support, says Amrullah Saleh, who was the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service until Karzai fired him earlier this year.

Mr. AMRULLAH SALEH: I see President Karzai very consistent in his policies. I see the U.S. more fluctuating. How many strategies we have heard from the United States since 2001? So who is more consistent?

NORTHAM: Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, says nine years into the relationship, the president feels he can freely express his views and opinions.

Mr. WAHEED OMAR (Spokesman for President Hamid Karzai): So we're entering a new phase in our relations with the United States, the Afghan government and the United States, where we deal with each other in a mature way, where we - our relationship is based on realities here on the ground, and where it's a lot less emotional than it used to be in the past.

NORTHAM: But the flare-ups continue.

President KARZAI: (Speaking foreign language).

NORTHAM: During a recent speech, Karzai began to weep as he talked about the violence, the ongoing war and his son's future. Karzai maintains he pushes back against the U.S. because he's trying to protect civilians.

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, has spent a lot of time with Karzai over the years. In diplomatic cables leaked to the press, Eikenberry has been sharply critical of the Afghan leader, but in public, the ambassador is more nuanced about the relationship.

Ambassador KARL EIKENBERRY (Afghanistan): It has its points of pressure, it has its places of disappointment and as it should be. But what's pretty extraordinary, eight years of this, and we're still fighting side by side.

NORTHAM: Masood Farivar, with Salam Watandar, says Karzai is struggling to build his reputation in his final term in office.

Mr. FARIVAR: Legacy is extremely important to him, and it will be important to him in the years to come and will dictate his actions.

NORTHAM: Farivar say Karzai likes to see himself an historic figure, but he seems an increasingly problematic one for the U.S. as it struggles to find a way out of Afghanistan.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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