Isolated Karzai grapples for credibility

Comment Surrounded by high walls and soldiers, Hamid Karzai is isolated from the country he is meant to govern.

Pictures of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, dominate Kabul, but he is rarely seen in person.
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Surrounded by high walls and soldiers, Hamid Karzai is isolated from the country he is meant to govern. Pictures of the Afghan president dominate Kabul, but he is rarely seen in person. Outside the capital he is little more than a figurehead, his grip on the levers of power slipping with each passing day. Yet even from the confines of his palace, he seems to have a reasonable idea of just how bad the situation is getting. His words are like that of a drowning man gasping for air as turbulent waters rise around him.

"If I say I want protection for Mullah [Mohammed] Omar, the international community has two choices: remove me or leave if they disagree," he told reporters this week. The offer of an olive branch to the Taliban's spiritual leader is nothing new. Mr Karzai, however, is using stronger language and going further than he has done before. Whether that stems from genuine frustration or is a calculated political ploy is open to debate.

Despite coming from Kandahar and being a Pashtun himself, Mr Karzai has lost most of his credibility among the very community he should be able to rely on. Across southern and eastern and parts of western Afghanistan, where the war is taking a devastating toll, there is dwindling support for a government that has been unable to stop or even slow the bloodshed. In Ghazni, Helmand and Paktia, democracy means death by air strike and doors smashed down after dark as the men of the family are hauled off to who knows where. It means paying bribes to officials and being scared of a police force that is accused of carrying out kidnappings and murders. Most of all, it means broken promises.

Mr Karzai's offer to Mr Omar was really an appeal to the Afghans whose allegiance he will need if he is to stand any chance of winning the presidential election due next year. Those Pashtuns who do not now openly support the Taliban usually have at least some sympathy for the insurgents. They see hypocrisy in the international community's willingness to pay, forgive and empower warlords from the north, while killing and arresting militants from the south.

The president's appeal goes directly to a key aspect of their culture: loyalty. Guests are protected at all costs, no matter who they are. This is the reason the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, and Mr Karzai is now claiming he will do something similar for Mr Omar. It is, though, too late for a man dubbed a puppet of the United States to start distancing himself from Washington. His comments were in all likelihood uttered in the knowledge that they would never have to be backed up with action.

Mr Karzai is saddened by what is happening to his homeland. He admits the government has not provided security or met expectations. On the few occasions he attends public ceremonies, he surely wonders if a bullet with his name on it is waiting. But he has to realise that Mr Omar and other senior Taliban leaders will not agree to any kind of deal while international troops are here indefinitely. He told reporters the insurgents must demonstrate they want peace. Under his terms, that is impossible.

Perhaps, then, the comments were also a message to the next White House administration. Barack Obama, the US president-elect, has vowed to make the war a top priority and Mr Karzai's appeal again highlights the urgency of the situation. Both men have announced they want thousands of extra foreign soldiers to be sent here. In the eyes of the Taliban, other rebel groups and many ordinary Pashtuns, these are the important words.

Finally, it should be remembered that Mr Karzai is not the only person to blame for the mistakes that have helped cause the unfolding tragedy. Diplomats in Kabul, politicians in London, and much of the world's media like to mock him now. Yet they are often the same people who adored him when he first arrived on the scene. In their own ways, they are just as responsible for the continuing destruction of this beautiful country.