- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s public accusations of vote-rigging against the West are eroding support among international backers already concerned about rampant corruption in his government and are jeopardizing a major U.S. offensive in the heartland of the Taliban, analysts say.

International efforts to combat terrorism in the region, and to stem Afghanistan’s drug trade, rest on Mr. Karzai’s ability to create a stable, credible administration that blunts the Taliban insurgency in a war-torn nation of clans and warlords.

Aiming to calm tensions on Wednesday, Mr. Karzai’s spokesman denied reports that the Afghan leader had threatened to join the Taliban if Western nations did not stop pressuring him to reform his government. Several Afghan lawmakers said Mr. Karzai made the comment in a Saturday meeting, about a week after President Obama had flown to Kabul to encourage Mr. Karzai to expedite reforms.

In addition, Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar announced the resignation of the head of Afghanistan’s election commission, which had been widely criticized for allowing fraud in last year’s presidential election. However, Mr. Omar defended Mr. Karzai’s accusations of international tampering in the election, saying his president was correcting the record.

“And the president felt … we have to avoid having the same conversation again in the parliamentary elections,” Mr. Omar said, according to the Associated Press. “And based on the facts … he thought there was information on the other side, on the side of the Afghan government, that the public has the right to know. So that’s why the president did that.”

The U.N.-backed watchdog that monitored the election, as well as other international players, have denied any foreign interference in the Afghan election. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs this week described Mr. Karzai’s accusations as “troubling” and “untruthful.”

Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan analyst at the State Department, said Mr. Karzai’s comments will have grave consequences. “It is one thing to play the nationalist card, but quite another when his remarks undermine his relations with his international partners and threaten the military operation,” he said.

Mr. Karzai’s remarks also can be seen as bolstering the Taliban cause and confirming a belief prevalent among Afghans that Western troops seek to occupy their country, he said. “Looking at his remarks, you’d think the Taliban wrote the script,” said Mr. Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute.

The Associated Press reported that NATO said another service member was killed Wednesday by insurgents in southern Afghanistan, the ninth foreign death this month. In addition, Germany’s foreign minister joined the calls for the Afghans to place more emphasis on good governance, saying that was necessary to allow foreign forces to begin withdrawing. Germany has more than 4,000 troops in Afghanistan - the third-largest foreign troop contingent.

Complicating the strategy of U.S. and allied troops engaged in operations against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar is the role of Mr. Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, in the region. Ahmed Wali Karzai has been accused of links with drug dealers and insurgents. He has denied the charges and dared his detractors to convict him if they can produce any evidence.

“We see a lot of accusations against Ahmed Wali, but there is no silver bullet,” a Western official said on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. “Where there is a whole lot of smoke, there has to be a fire; but we don’t know the nature of that fire.”

President Karzai has moved against local power brokers, but he has been reluctant to check the influence of his own brother.

“The big challenge in Kandahar is not so much securing the city but governance and corruption issues,” a U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Can Ahmed Wali turn over a new leaf [after the operation in Kandahar]? We need him to step up.”

U.S. officials are concerned that Afghanistan’s lack of a credible judiciary along with systemic corruption have created space for the Taliban. “It’s not as though the Taliban is winning hearts and minds,” the U.S. official said.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who led Mr. Obama’s review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the Afghan president’s “seemingly erratic behavior is a clever political message. … Afghans want decisions about their future made by Afghans, not NATO or the United States. Karzai is playing to this nationalist sentiment.”

Mr. Karzai’s vote-rigging charges have angered the Obama administration, which has expressed reluctance in conducting a May 12 meeting between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Obama at the White House.

Mr. Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that the U.S. and the West chose Mr. Karzai to be Afghanistan’s president eight years ago. “Now many in the United States seem to have buyer’s remorse,” he said.

Abdullah Abdullah, a foreign minister in a previous Karzai administration, dropped out of last year’s runoff election with Mr. Karzai, citing evidence of large-scale rigging in the president’s favor. In a telephone interview with The Washington Times this week, Mr. Abdullah said Mr. Karzai’s accusations “distort reality” and warned him not to stir up animosity against Westerners.

“He is using the anti-foreigner card in a very dangerous manner,” Mr. Abdullah said. “The Afghan people expect him to deliver on good governance and eradicating corruption. These are not just Western demands.”

Meanwhile, Karl W. Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has had several meetings with Mr. Karzai over the past few days to get a better sense of the Afghan leader’s reported remarks. These meetings have left the impression that Mr. Karzai believes what he says and is playing the anti-foreigner card to gain domestic political stature.

In a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last week, Mr. Karzai sought to explain his remarks. He later told CNN that his comments were intended “just to make sure that we all understand as to where each one of us stands. … Afghanistan is the home of Afghans, and we own this place. Our partners are here to help, and we run this country.”