(29 January, 2009) – The Barack Obama administration has abandoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai and now believes he is a major obstacle to defeating the Taliban-led insurgency.
By Dean Nelson, Alex Spillius and Ben Farmer in Kabul
Officials in the US State Department, Department of Defence and National Security Council are now openly questioning Mr Karzai’s ability to rein in corruption, improve law and order and confront the warlords who control the country’s deadly opium trade.
Sources close to the U.S administration last night denied they will pressurise President Karzai to stand down but said they will offer tacit support to candidates standing against him.
Their opposition to a second term for Mr Karzai emerged after Afghanistan’s Election Commission announced a delay in the presidential election from April 22, four weeks before his term expires, to August 22.
Citing the worsening security situation, technical problems and a shortfall of $223 million dollars, Commissioner Azizullah Ludin said new security forces had been promised, but without them an election could not be held.
The delay has presented an opportunity for Mr Karzai’s growing band of detractors in Washington and Europe who believe the situation in Afghanistan cannot improve while he is at the helm in Kabul.
Their views are understood to reflect those of new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who described Afghanistan as a ‘narcostate’ at her Senate appointment hearing earlier this month, and Richard Holbrooke who was last week appointed as President Obama’s ‘super envoy’ to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Holbrooke, a former US ambassador to the UN has made a number of highly critical speeches on Karzai’s governments and wrote a withering article in September last year in which he said Afghanistan’s "central government has shown that it is simply not up to the job."
Diplomats said Mr Holbrooke’s appointment marked the beginning of the end for Mr Karzai, and his likely replacement by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former foreign secretary, or one of his allies.
Dr Abdullah was one of four Afghan politicians who attended President Obama’s inauguration ceremony in Washington last week, and is known to be close to Mr Holbrooke.
The Afghan president has become increasingly anti-Western in his comments as his re-election campaign looms ever closer, and has launched a number of attacks on Western-interference in Afghanistan’s affairs.
In particular, he has condemned Nato’s high number of civilian casualties and the attempt to appoint Lord Ashdown as the UN’s ‘super-envoy’ to galvanise reconstruction work. But it has failed to convince Afghans while further alienating the Western allies who have shored up his regime.
One senior diplomat who recently met the American officials responsible for its Afghan policy said: "They have realised that it is untenable, that the implications of five more years will be catastrophic. Policy is being made as we speak. All [those] I spoke with in [Washington] D.C openly said that it is time to go – established people in the State [Department], National Security Council, Department of Defence," said
"People were saying that things will get a lot more serious – they have been messing about to date – once the date of the election has been set, which it now obviously has been." Another senior Western official said Afghanistan was now America’s top priority. "You do not leave top priority in the hands of a third rate mafia-linked team. The Americans are only just going to work now. The job is too important for a duffer.
"The Western backers are not about to reimpose Karzai. They recognise the need for leadership which is competent and popular. Karzai is neither." He said Mr Karzai remaining in office once his term expires on May 22 would leave American troops fighting overseas to prop up what will then be an unconstitutional government. The Afghan president will come under pressure to stand down in favour of a caretaker in the run-up to the August election, he added.
Speculation over a successor has centred on four Afghan politicians, including Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who attended President Obama’s inauguration. The Afghan delegation also included Gula Agha Sherzai, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr. Ali Ahmad Jalali, who is regarded as a front-runner. Another candidate mentioned is Haji Nasrullah Baryalai Arsalai, the brother of Kabul governor Haji Din Mohammed.
Washington-based Afghanistan analyst Dr Mohammad Daud Altaf said disillusionment with President Karzai had emerged during the U.S presidential campaign. Now the Obama administration faced a tough choice over Karzai’s role as head of an interim government in the run-up to the elections. "It should be Afghans who make some way of finding an interim government, rather than a continuation of the status quo which would be illegitimate," he said.