KABUL - The Unpopular Afghan President's Talents for Deal Making and Conciliation Are Expected to Pave Way to Another 5-Year Term
When the U.S. and its allies first anointed Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's president nearly eight years ago, he was seen at home and abroad as an adept politician uniquely suited to forge compromises among the country's warring factions.
As Afghanistan has deteriorated, so has Mr. Karzai's reputation. The same traits that once earned him praise are now criticized as signs of a mercurial and vacillating leader. He publicly denounces the U.S. presence. He is widely blamed for all that ails Afghanistan: the rampant corruption, the flourishing opium trade, the Taliban's resurgence. And, until he began campaigning for re-election when the nation goes to the polls Aug. 20, he rarely ventured beyond the confines of his palace. At a rally on Friday he made only a brief appearance, speaking for about six minutes.
Yet the deeply unpopular Mr. Karzai, 51 years old, is heavily favored to win another five-year term. The reason, according to allies, foes and diplomats: Despite his many shortcomings, Mr. Karzai has become a passive strongman, a leader whose deal-making touch and conciliatory instincts have allowed him to sideline rivals or turn them into allies. That is expected to translate into victory at the polls, in a system in which voters tend to follow their traditional and ethnic leaders.
Yet he also lacks the clout to dominate the unruly collection of former warlords, tribal elders, small-time politicos and businessmen who preside over Afghanistan. That has left the country in a permanent state of barely contained chaos and Mr. Karzai as the most powerful among a roster of nearly 40 national candidates, many of them politically weak.
If Mr. Karzai wins another five-year term, it is likely to mean little or no progress on overhauls needed to bolster Afghanistan's economy and civilian institutions to complement the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's intensified military campaign against the Taliban. Mr. Karzai's office didn't respond to requests for an interview or for comment on Mr. Karzai's governing style.
Neither Mr. Karzai's government nor its Western benefactors have "created or trained a proper, competent government apparatus," said Robert Finn, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan for the first two years of Mr. Karzai's presidency. As a result, Mr. Karzai has "fallen back on traditional power structures -- the local powerbrokers, the tribal chieftains or whoever they are."
One of Mr. Karzai's two vice-presidential running mates, for instance, is Mohammed Fahim, a Tajik warlord known for his brutality during the civil war in the 1990s that followed the retreat of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Karzai has promised to reappoint as army chief of staff another ex-warlord, Uzbek leader Gen. Rashid Dostum, say people involved in the negotiations.
And Mr. Karzai has courted the Hazara minority, a key swing vote, by promising to appoint more Hazara ministers and create a province dominated by the ethnic group, said Muhammad Mohaqeq, a Hazara leader.
Such moves echo Mr. Karzai's efforts early in his presidency to force warlords to abandon their fiefs and join the central government.
The president's choice of allies has done little to endear him to a wary public. Private polling in recent weeks indicates he is losing ground to second-place candidate Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and unlikely to win the 50.1% needed to secure victory in the first round on Aug. 20, say people who have seen the numbers. He would be expected to win in a second round between the top two finishers.
Mr. Karzai is in talks with another contender, Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, about a deal that could help ensure his victory in the first round, say people in both camps. The deal would see Mr. Ghani drop out of the race and sign on to Mr. Karzai's camp. In exchange, Mr. Ghani, a capable technocrat, would become a "chief executive" in the new administration and handle much of its day-to-day management.
Neither camp would publicly comment. A Ghani campaign staffer said the candidate hadn't yet ruled out such a deal.
The U.S. would likely support such a move in the hopes it would avoid prolonged instability before a second round of voting, a U.S. official in Washington said, although American officials in Kabul have repeatedly said they favor no single candidate.
Mr. Karzai's style, while suiting him, also has been dictated by the fact that Afghanistan remains a weak nation dominated by provincial interests. "This isn't a federation, it's not even a confederation," said a senior Western official in Kabul. "It's a herd of provinces and people that sometimes runs in the same direction." Asked whether anyone else could have managed any better with the hand the president was dealt, the official said: "Probably not."
Building the institutions that underpin a democracy -- strong ministries, a competent and apolitical bureaucracy, real political parties -- "is going to take years," said Haroun Mir, the co-director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies. It will also, Mr. Mir said, require the cooperation of the people Mr. Karzai is criticized for appeasing.
U.S. officials have already begun forging stronger ties with provincial officials in anticipation of continued weakness in Kabul.
That's an art that Mr. Karzai, the son of the paramount chieftain of the Populzai tribe of the Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, mastered long ago. "Ever since he was a child in his village he knew how to get along with people and balance everyone," said Hajji Aga Lalai Dastagiri, a tribal leader from Kandahar, a southern province, who has known the Karzai family for many years.
With corruption rife and Afghanistan's limited bureaucracy chronically incapable of shepherding development projects, Mr. Karzai instead often "deals directly with locals," said Nek Muhammad, a spokesman for the president's re-election campaign in Kandahar, a southern province.
He cited a road project in the province's remote Panjway district. It took more than eight months for the local government to find a contractor. Even then work didn't begin because of a series of bureaucratic hold ups.
"Then Karzai came one day, met with the locals and ordered construction to start," Mr. Muhammad said. "Work started within three days."
Those who aren't visited by the president can make the trek to Kabul and attend one of the audiences he regularly holds at the Gul Khana, or Flower House, the part of the royal palace where he works.
"Last year, mullahs from my village asked me if I can send them to Hajj," the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, said Mr. Dastagiri, the tribal elder. "I couldn't afford it from my own pocket so I went to the president," he continued. "I told him that they are good mullahs, very loyal to the government. I asked him to sign a president's decree and send them to the hajj. He did it."