When Hamid Karzai started presenting the victims of British bombings in Helmand with medals commemorating Wazir Akbar Khan, one of the victors of the first Anglo-Afghan war, someone should, perhaps, have wondered which side Afghanistan’s president was really on.
That was in 2006 when he was furious that the British had demanded the removal of Sher Mohammad Akhundzada as governor of Helmand after finding opium in his office. Karzai still insists this move prompted a resurgence of the Taliban.
At the time British officials consoled themselves that he was angry over the bombing of civilians by US forces but could not risk alienating his main backer. Whether or not they were right, there is little love lost now between the presidential palace in Kabul and the White House.
If you commit 100,000 troops to a war, as President Barack Obama will soon have done, you do not want as your partner someone who says that you may be trying to poison him, who flirts with your enemy and threatens to join the very people you are fighting.
America has now lost more than 1,000 lives in Afghanistan and is spending $73 billion there this year. After showing footage last week of Karzai lambasting the West, American talk-show host Jon Stewart spluttered in indignation. “I think the words he was looking for [were] thank you,” he said.
From the start Karzai has not known what to make of Obama but he believes the US president did not want him to win re-election last August. He reacted to a recent White House snub by inviting to Kabul President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who gave a fiery anti-American speech.
Karzai has seen himself described as “mad” and “paranoid” in the US media, which have also carried reports that America wants to put his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, an alleged drug dealer, on a death list.
Peter Galbraith, a former United Nations official, even intimated Karzai was using drugs. “He’s prone to tirades,” Galbraith said. “In fact, some palace insiders say that he has a certain fondness for some of Afghanistan’s most profitable exports.”
How on earth has this happened? I have known Karzai for 23 years and while he is erratic, with mood swings, he is not mad. He is an extremely proud Afghan, answering to a nation that has defeated all its occupiers and which does not trust the Americans, having been abandoned by them before.
Appeasing both the international community and his own Pashtun tribe, which bears the brunt of fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan, is a balancing act for which he may not be sufficiently skilled.
Since he is isolated behind high walls and seven layers of security in a palace where many of his predecessors were murdered, it is hardly surprising if he is paranoid.
Sycophantic courtiers feed him rumour and a daily digest of the foreign press with anything negative highlighted in yellow.
Unlike President George W Bush, who called Karzai his buddy and held monthly video conferences with him, Obama has distanced himself. He made his first visit to Kabul as president last week, flying for 26 hours to give Karzai a 25-minute lecture on corruption.
The Karzai family has now hit back, accusing US officials of launching a smear campaign as a prelude to abandoning the country again. “There’s a very bad policy developing towards Afghanistan,” said the president’s brother Mahmoud Karzai, a businessman who lives in Kabul. “They want to discredit the Afghan government in the eyes of the US public. I hope it’s not the beginning of an exit strategy. If it is, God help us, it will be very bad — don’t they remember what happened when they did this before in the Eighties?”
Mahmoud believes the tension goes back to before last summer’s elections. “There was a clear push by a group of US politicians to really hurt him.”
He particularly blames Galbraith, who was then the deputy UN representative, and Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “They made statements which were really outrageous,” he said. “On the second day of counting, before the results were even known, they said it would go to a second round.
“Ever since there has been a push to undermine the Afghan government. I don’t understand. I see right now the Taliban at the fence. If we continue the good work, the Taliban will be defeated, but if we continue in this way they will not.”
He was incensed by Galbraith’s suggestion that the president was on drugs. “My brother has never smoked a cigarette in his life,” he said. “He doesn’t drink or gamble. For people to make such a ridiculous attack is outrageous.
“We worry that taking sides with certain countries might be the agenda,” Mahmoud added. “Mr Holbrooke is very close to Pakistan.”
The biggest sticking point is Ahmed Wali, who runs the family interests in Kandahar and is believed to be a drug dealer. US officials have reportedly said he must be removed before a battle for control of the province.
“They say he is a drug dealer but we’ve never been shown any evidence,” Mahmoud said. “The idea that Ahmed Wali should be removed is generated by those who want to hand over Kandahar to the Taliban.”
As for the Afghan president’s reported threat to join the Taliban if the West kept attacking him, Mahmoud said: “It’s impossible. The Taliban would not allow him.” It is often forgotten that Karzai was once the Taliban’s chief fundraiser.
The argument may come down to differences over how to deal with the Taliban. Like the British, Karzai thinks negotiations should start now. The Americans want a military victory first. This will be the main topic of discussion when Karzai visits Washington next month.
Germans bemoan poor kit
German troops are complaining that they are unable to fight in Afghanistan because of poor training and a lack of proper equipment, writes Bojan Pancevski.
After the deaths of three German soldiers and five Afghan police officers killed by friendly fire last weekend, officers have blamed a shortage of weapons, ammunition, vehicles and helicopters for low morale.
Their spotter drones, needed for surveillance, could not take off in the heat. The new NH90 multi-role helicopters have proved “inappropriate”, as they lack space for machineguns.
Unlike most other Nato troops, the Germans are flying large quantities of alcohol to their Afghan bases. Annual shipments have reached 1.8m pints of beer and 70,000 litres of wine, according to defence ministry figures.
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