Afghan president looks to tradition
KABUL, Afghanistan – Tribal elders pleaded with Hamid Karzai to intervene in a land feud with their neighbors. But it was too dangerous for the president of Afghanistan to travel south to the heart of the Taliban insurgency, so Karzai invited them up to Kabul for lunch.At least 120 ethnic Pashtuns from Zabul province arrived, making their way past razor wire strung out a mile from the palace doors. The desert dust still clung to their plastic sandals and tattered clothes as they sat down under vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers.Karzai, himself the son of a Pashtun chief, assured these elders of the Tokhi and Hotak tribes that he would try to find a solution to their 40-year-old argument with the Nasir tribe.”My father spent all of his life solving tribal problems, and I was with him the whole time,” he said. The elders muttered skeptically.Most presidents don’t concern themselves with tribal disputes, but Karzai, like Afghan kings of old, makes local quarrels part of his daily routine.Aides say he is turning to tradition as he struggles to build a stable democracy on a foundation of war, corruption, foreign interference and religious extremism. Critics counter that he is retreating behind the marble and stone walls of his 19th century palace and losing touch with a country sinking deeper into trouble.But Karzai’s foreign backers have left him with little real power, and his weak, corruption-riddled government lacks direct control over billions of dollars in development aid, money that is supposed to help Karzai win Afghan support for his administration.After the United States joined forces with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance militia to oust the Taliban regime five years ago, it pledged to help rebuild the country and chose Karzai to lead the effort. Since then, foreign donors have spent at least $16 billion in Afghanistan; more than $10.3 billion of that has come from the United States.Afghanistan has made enormous progress in some areas. With hopes for a better future soaring, its citizens defied insurgent threats to elect Karzai to a full term two years ago and to choose a parliament last year. The elections were the freest and fairest in the country’s history.Under Karzai, more than 90 percent of Afghan children are in school, compared with fewer than 20 percent during Taliban rule. A multinational effort is training an army that is halfway to its goal of 70,000 soldiers in uniform, as it strives to overcome ethnic divisions, equipment problems and low morale. Parliament is gradually asserting its authority. A full quarter of the members are women.But the progress has not met the rising expectations of Karzai’s countrymen. Many see the nation slipping back into the grip of violence, corruption and extremism from which the West promised to liberate them.On paper, the post-Taliban constitution gives Afghanistan’s president ample power. But central government influence remains weak in large parts of the country.Perhaps Karzai’s greatest strength is giving pep talks to Afghans at news conferences and in speeches, urging them to unite and solve their problems. Still, many say they would prefer honest justice, jobs and peace to fine words.From ethnic minorities in the north to the president’s fellow Pashtuns in the south, Karzai faces the same growing disaffection.Sitting on a curb in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Sanam Shah spoke of the Karzai era’s mixed blessings. A mother of eight and an ethnic Uzbek, she suffers kidney and digestive problems and traveled from her desert village of Andkhoi in search of a good doctor.Foreign aid has delivered new equipment to her local clinic, but none of the employees are properly trained to use it, she said, speaking through the mesh of her white burqa veil. “I think Karzai is doing a fine job, but nothing has changed in my life,” she said.Hundreds of miles to the south in Logar, the owner of a two-pump gas station, a Pashtun, said he was unemployed under the Taliban but was able start his own business when U.S. aid rebuilt the highway.But the Taliban are back, scaring off customers by ambushing cars at night, said Hekmatullah, who, like many Afghans, uses one name.”Power is back in the hands of those who had it before, like warlords, the Taliban and thieves,” he said. “Nobody pays attention to poor people like us.”In the eyes of Afghans, the restrictions on Karzai’s authority imposed by foreign governments make him a shadow of a president with only the trappings of power: photo opportunities, ribbon cuttings and bodyguards with wraparound sunglasses who carry M-4 assault rifles and whisper into microphones in the sleeves of their dark suits.Although Karzai is officially Afghanistan’s commander in chief, he has no control over the foreign troops fighting the Taliban insurgency and little over his own army, which answers to the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His defense minister’s main job is cajoling donors into providing the army with better equipment.The country’s gross domestic product has doubled since Karzai came to office, but the drug trade is the largest employer and source of income. Drugs account for half of Afghanistan’s economy and create what the United Nations calls a “narco society.”Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid aimed at persuading farmers to grow legal crops, this year’s opium harvest is expected to set a record. It’s up 50 percent from last year, to an estimated 6,700 tons, the U.N. said in early September.Though reconstruction spending could help the government draw support away from drug lords, the Taliban and other foes, only a quarter of public spending actually goes through the Afghan government, World Bank figures show.U.S. money supports a wide variety of projects to improve agriculture and government institutions, support schools and clinics, and rebuild roads, bridges, canals and other infrastructure destroyed by war. But unlike Britain and a few other countries, the United States has not demonstrated confidence in Karzai’s government by giving it direct control of the funds.In the meantime, the insurgency has spread across more than half the country, with fighters advancing northward from strongholds in the east and pushing all the way to the Iranian border in the west. Government officials say the militants in villages and districts near Kabul, the capital, are laying the groundwork for future offensives.Ludin blames Pakistan for reviving the insurgency, which once looked to be on its last legs.After they were ousted from power in 2001, the Taliban retreated to bases in Pakistan, where the military’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency had once nurtured them. From there, the Taliban and its allies regrouped in eastern and southern Afghanistan, U.S. military intelligence documents say.Washington today regards Pakistan as a key ally in fighting terrorism, but many Afghans suspect the country of playing a double game, cooperating with the United States while fostering the Taliban insurgency.Karzai’s frustration over tactics used by the U.S. and allied military forces, including the continued bombing of civilian areas, is raw. Senior Afghan officials are surprisingly frank about the dangers of foreign military dominance.Despite the success in uniting Afghanistan’s fractured ethnic groups into a national army, a senior aide to Karzai, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, called the army a “sort of lame-duck institution” without the capacity to make decisions.”It will fall the instant that the U.S. military is not behind it,” the official said.