Despite mixed record, Karzai poised to win

Afghan president struggles to establish his authority

October 03, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's leader, Hamid Karzai, presided over ceremonies here 2 1/2 years ago marking the first time girls could attend classes after the fall of the Taliban. As children marched into the gym, Karzai was visibly moved.

He swallowed hard. Tears welled in his eyes.

It was a rare public show of tenderness by a chief of state - and it illustrates what may be Karzai's biggest problem as he seeks to become Afghanistan's first elected president in Saturday's election.

From childhood, Karzai has been a diplomat, negotiator and conciliator. Even political foes express affection for his forgiving and gentle manner.

But many Afghans ask whether their stylish president - called "the chicest man on the planet" by Gucci's chief designer - is tough enough to rule a country long dominated by fanatics, drug dealers and warlords.

For the first two years of his rule, he brought rivals into his government. He bargained and negotiated. What followed was a surge in opium production, defiance of the central government and the loss of millions of dollars in monthly customs revenues to strongmen.

As the election loomed, Karzai tried to crack down. In the past few months, he has fired his maverick minister of planning, removed the influential governor of the western city of Herat and denied the former minister of defense a spot on the ballot as one of his vice presidents.

But if he was born for diplomacy, Karzai seems less adroit at wielding power. Instead of being praised for finally bringing warlords to heel, he has been criticized for heavy-handed tactics. Some Afghans fear he is stripping power from rivals of his own ethnic group, the politically dominant Pashtuns.

Karzai has also disappointed those who hoped he would become Afghanistan's first national political figure, with support cutting across ethnic boundaries. In Saturday's elections Karzai faces 17 rival candidates, representing almost every faction in Afghanistan's splintered society.

Among the challengers are his fired planning minister, Muhammed Mohaqeq, a Hazarra warlord; Abdul Rashid Dostum, the whiskey-drinking Uzbek who rules over much of northern Afghanistan like a personal fiefdom; and Yunus Qanooni, a Tajik leader who fought the Taliban beside the Americans and now feels squeezed from power.

Supporters say Karzai had no choice but to rule by consensus because he had no national army, police or any of the other traditional instruments of power. Despite this enormous handicap, they say, he has managed to persuade the international community to donate billions of dollars for roads, schools, courts and other institutions, while supplying 25,000 troops to keep the peace.

They also point to progress in building a national army, and claim some success in efforts to disarm the country's private militias. "The warlords are gradually evaporating," said Quadir Armiryar, a professor of law at Kabul University and one of Karzai's advisers.

Critics, meanwhile, say Karzai has been slow to challenge his Afghan foes and reluctant to defy his foreign patrons. He has, they charge, timidly pursued reform and reconstruction.

"Of course, he is a weak leader," said Massouda Jalal, a 41-year-old Kabul physician and the only woman on the ballot.

Jalal came in second to Karzai in the June 2002 constitutional loya jirga - or grand council - in the vote for a transitional president. Now she is running again because of what she says is the Karzai government's paralysis.

"Karzai came to power with the direct support of the warlords, not the people of Afghanistan," Jalal said. "That's why his hands were tied, and he can't act independently."

Analysts say it's possible that no candidate will receive the 50 percent of the vote required for victory, forcing a runoff. But they are confident that Karzai will ultimately prevail.

Since Karzai's Pashtun tribesmen are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, that alone should guarantee a victory.

Moreover, said Fahim Dashti, editor of the independent newspaper the Kabul Weekly, many voters don't feel they have a choice. Afghans fear, he said, that if Karzai is defeated, the West will withdraw its military and financial props, crushing hopes for reconstruction.

And, he added, there is no other candidate with the stature to challenge Karzai. "I think he's the only one who can lead Afghanistan for the moment," Dashti said in an interview. "But he's not the best one to do it. He's not even good at it."

Officially, the United States is neutral in the race. But when Karzai cut a ribbon to mark the official reopening of the National Museum of Afghanistan on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was just a few steps away.

Khalilzad gave a speech reminding guests that the United States had rebuilt the museum's roof and was spending millions of dollars more to repair mosques, tombs and monuments as well as Afghanistan's National Gallery and National Archives. "This is another good day for Afghanistan," he said.

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