Obama takes sour tone on Karzai partnership

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KABUL, Afghanistan

After seven years in office, President Hamid Karzai’s star is rapidly waning in Washington, with President Obama saying Afghanistan’s government is detached from the surrounding communities it is supposed to serve.

Mr. Karzai is seeking re-election later this year, and the Obama administration must decide how much overt support to give Mr. Karzai - or whether the U.S. might seek another partner.

Either way, the critical comments coming from the new administration signal an end to the era of special relationship that the Afghan leader had with President Bush.

A new tension is evident. In a news conference Tuesday, Mr. Karzai said the discord is like a “gentle wrestling” match, and he hopes Afghanistan ends up on top.

Mr. Karzai has what is considered one of the world’s most difficult jobs: directing Afghanistan’s rise after the Taliban destroyed the government and ruined relations among the country’s various ethnic groups.

But the job has gotten much tougher.

Mr. Obama said Monday that Afghanistan’s government seems “very detached from what’s going on in the surrounding community.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently called Afghanistan a “narco-state,” and a new poll found that 40 percent of Afghans think their country is headed in the right direction, down from 77 percent in 2005.

Mr. Karzai has vowed to seek re-election in August.

“I have been in government for seven years, and it is natural that I will not be as popular as I was seven years ago,” Mr. Karzai said at a recent news conference.

Given the circumstances in Afghanistan, any other world leader would fare even worse, he said.

More than half of Afghans - 52 percent - said they approve of Mr. Karzai’s job performance, down from 63 percent in 2007, according to a poll released this week that was conducted for ABC News, the British Broadcasting Corp. and ARD German TV.

The poll was based on in-person interviews with a random national sample of 1,534 Afghan adults from Dec. 30 to Jan. 12. Field work was conducted by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul. The information was gathered by 176 interviewers in 34 supervised teams, and the results have a 2.5 percentage point margin of error.

When Mr. Karzai was chosen to lead this traumatized nation in 2002 - shortly after U.S. troops and Afghan allies ousted the Taliban from power - there was great hope that a country devastated from two decades of Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule would slowly rise to its feet.

The soft-spoken Mr. Karzai, dressed in an elegant tunic and wearing traditional headgear, became the face of new Afghanistan, where millions of children, including girls, went to school. Hospitals opened and roads were built.

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