- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

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.

But as the war in Iraq diverted U.S. resources, progress in Afghanistan slowed, allowing the Taliban to make a violent comeback.

Today, Afghanistan faces an insurgency that the U.S. and its NATO allies have yet to tame. The country produces 90 percent of the world’s heroin, and the central government is decried as one of the world’s most corrupt.

“Far too much was placed on Karzai’s shoulders in the early years. He was portrayed in the West as a miracle man who would solve everything,” said Joanna Nathan, an Afghanistan specialist at the International Crisis Group.

“Both he and his U.S. backers insisted on a highly centralized presidential system, and far too many eggs were placed in one basket. Now things are not going well, it has swung in the other direction where all blame is being placed on [Mr. Karzai’s] shoulders, which is not realistic either,” Miss Nathan said.

Seth Jones, a top military analyst who studies Afghanistan, said the country won’t be stabilized from the top “since the central government is far too weak.”

“This is the strategy that has largely been pursued over the last few years. Instead, stability requires bottom-up efforts in rural areas of the country,” said Mr. Jones, an analyst with Rand Corp. “This requires dealing with local tribal, religious and other figures, as well as district and provincial government institutions.”

A quarterly Pentagon report presented to Congress last month said Mr. Karzai heads “one of the weakest governments in the world.”

“It is hampered by pervasive corruption and a lack of sufficient leadership and human capital,” the report said.

Mr. Karzai is hitting back, blaming the downward slide on a lack of international coordination and terrorist havens in Pakistan.

He has increasingly been riding a populist wave by voicing discontent with the U.S. conduct in the war, particularly the number of civilian casualties. He has suggested that Afghanistan would seek new arms deals with Russia and has threatened to hold a referendum on rules that could constrain U.S. and NATO operations.

His spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said the United States remains Afghanistan’s strategic partner.

“It’s only fair for partners in a changing situation and serious situations to expect more from each other. And that’s exactly what we are doing,” Mr. Hamidzada said. “We will sit down with our partners and find out how to work with each other.”

For Mr. Karzai, the killing of civilians, arrests of Afghans and house searches at the hands of U.S. troops must stop immediately, since they appear to be eroding his standing at home and dampening domestic support for the war.

He sent an 11-point plan to U.S. and NATO officials calling for greater Afghan involvement in operations, Afghan approval of where U.S. and NATO troops can be deployed, and an end to arrests and house searches by foreign troops.

“While we have … a tension between us on the question of civilian casualties, arrests of Afghans and home searches, the fundamentals of our relationship [are] strong, the partnership is strong and it will continue as a strong partnership toward the future,” Mr. Karzai said Tuesday.