Karzai’s Isolation Worries Afghans and the West
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 7, 2010
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan observers and Western officials are interpreting the forced resignations of Afghanistan’s two top security officials as another worrying sign of President Hamid Karzai’s increasingly impulsive decision making and deepening isolation from his backers, both within Afghanistan and abroad.
The two men who resigned over the weekend, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and the intelligence director, Amrullah Saleh, had strong relationships with American and British officials and were seen as being among the most competent of his cabinet members, said several Western officials in Kabul. Mr. Saleh, in particular, had built an intelligence agency that the West had come to depend on in a region where reliable partners are hard to find, they said.
Their ready dismissals have left the sense that, in trying to ensure his own survival, Mr. Karzai will not hesitate to make decisions counter to the interests of his staunchest Western allies or the Afghan government as a whole, or even to make decisions that seem counter to his own long-term interests.
“This is the beginning of the unraveling of the Afghan government,” said Haron Meer, a political analyst and former aide to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, which fought the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan.
“This is a signal that Mr. Karzai is oblivious about this situation,” he said. “Afghan people want a government where people are appointed based on merit, and instead he is doing the opposite. He is removing two of the best managers in his cabinet.”
To some, the forced departure of the two men is a troubling indication of the president’s mounting insecurity and his fear that even those closest to him are not looking out for him.
Compounding those fears is Mr. Karzai’s lack of faith in the Americans and his uncertainty about whether they will back him over the long term. That impression has been reinforced by President Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in July 2011 and his administration’s arm’s-length relationship with President Karzai.
“The root of this is the perception that President Karzai got last year from the kind of cold reception that he got from the American administration, and that made him feel insecure,” said Ahmed Ali Jalali, who was Afghanistan’s interior minister from 2003 to 2005. He now teaches at the National Defense University in Washington.
The insecurity has left Mr. Karzai alternately lashing out in anger and searching for new allies, turning to Iran and elements within the Taliban. Both are antagonistic to American interests.
“He is trying to create new networks, new allies and contacts both inside the country and outside the country in case there’s a premature withdrawal, so a lot of this is more of a survival gesture,” Mr. Jalali said.
Since late March, the president has lashed out at the NATO coalition, accusing it of perpetrating fraud in the presidential election last year and for behaving in ways that made the Westerners seem almost like “invaders.” While the anger was glossed over in a visit to the United States in May, the distrust has remained, Western officials said.
At a peace convention, or jirga, last week, Mr. Karzai got an endorsement of his long-held plan to release Taliban prisoners. On Sunday, he issued a decree to release those held without enough evidence for trials, in an apparent effort to prove his bona fides to his enemies and show that he could deliver.
But such a move is highly controversial, both within the country and for the NATO coalition. Some of the Taliban held in Afghan and American detention have killed fellow Afghans; some have killed NATO troops.
Ostensibly Mr. Atmar and Mr. Saleh were forced to resign over security lapses during the jirga that allowed the Taliban to fire rockets at the opening ceremony. Beyond that, however, the two men and Mr. Karzai had a number of differences.
Mr. Saleh, whose National Directorate of Security runs detention centers that hold a number of detainees, was opposed to any casual release of Taliban fighters. In some cases his men died while capturing Taliban operatives with the assent of Mr. Karzai or his close aides, according to people close to the presidency.
Mr. Karzai appears determined to proceed anyway, without, in the view of his critics, getting anything in return. The move has heightened fears that he is grasping at straws in his effort to win political support from any quarter.
“It’s one thing if there is a grand bargain for peace that is endorsed by the Parliament, and on one side Karzai releases some Taliban and on the other side Afghanistan gets something,” said an Afghan businessman who closely watches politics, but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has business with Mr. Karzai’s government. “But what does he get for this? Nothing.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Karzai’s internal political support appears to be ebbing. During the election campaign, he garnered the support of Shiite Hazara leaders and the former commanders Karim Khalili and Hajji Muhammad Moheqiq, as well as the Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum.
All have since drifted away, and neither Mr. Dostum nor Mr. Moheqiq attended the peace jirga. While none of the former warlords are beloved in Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai had previously calculated that it was better to have them in the tent than outside it.
Now they are outside in any case, saying Mr. Karzai has failed to make good on promises to award their supporters powerful positions in the government in exchange for helping Mr. Karzai win re-election. While that is not Mr. Karzai’s fault — he tried, but many of his cabinet nominees were rejected — it has left him alone and reaching out to the Taliban.
“We don’t know what destination our government is going towards,” said Shukria Barakzai, a member of Parliament and a supporter of Mr. Karzai. “But unfortunately we are going backward, not forward.”
Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting.