/ 19 November 2009

Karzai faces a rough ride from Western backers

Hamid Karzai is the charismatic scion of a respected Afghan family who rose eight years ago to lead his crippled nation but begins his second presidential term tarnished by corruption and fraud.

Often charming and with Western flair, Karzai’s style has been rooted in traditional tribal deal-making conducted behind closed doors and limited public appearances that have led to criticism he is increasingly cut off.

A man with a fondness for horse riding, Karzai faces a rough ride from Western backers demanding that he turn promised reform into concrete action to promote a legitimacy that many feel is lacking after a fraud-tainted election.

Delivering an inaugural address before visiting foreign ministers, including United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Karzai addressed each of the huge challenges facing his government but the West has demanded actions, not words.

“We have to learn from our mistakes and shortcomings of the last eight years,” he said in a speech designed to win over his detractors.

Karzai was first given the daunting task of leading Afghanistan in December 2001. He was swept into power after a US-led invasion drove out the extremist Taliban regime for sheltering al-Qaeda after the September 11 2001 attacks.

As a fluent English speaker, tribal elder and son of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group, he had guaranteed influence.

He was appointed chairperson of a transitional administration at United Nations-sponsored talks in Bonn, Germany that pledged to work towards democracy.

A traditional Afghan assembly of about 2 000 people, called a loya jirga, then confirmed him as president of the transitional government.

In 2003, in a sign of the respect he commanded, Karzai received an honorary knighthood from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II a year before he won Afghanistan’s first presidential election, with 55,4% of the vote.

But criticism now replaces the honours he once received.

Electoral fraud that tarnished Afghanistan’s second presidential election in August — along with corruption, suspect alliances and a worsening Taliban insurgency — have widely discredited the former darling of the West.

His own officials declared Karzai (51) winner of the vote after challenger Abdullah Abdullah abandoned a run-off and investigators threw out a third of Karzai’s original votes because of fraud.

With foreign governments urging him to pledge major reforms, Karzai faces a Herculean task to recover the trust of his traditional backers.

Western allies have demanded the sacking and even arrest of corrupt officials. Yet these are the same men who could cause serious problems in Karzai’s second term if not amply rewarded for putting him in power.

In leaked classified cables, US ambassador Karl Eikenberry raised worries over Karzai’s “erratic” behaviour, forcing Karzai’s office to issue a denial.

Karzai has also defended his proposed vice president, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who is implicated by US-based Human Rights Watch in abuses, including murder, during a civil war in the 1990s.

His inclusion of strongmen in the government was intended to promote unity in the factionalised country but sceptics said it encouraged impunity.

Known as a stylish dresser with a penchant for traditional striped capes and a high karakul hat, Karzai has survived at least two assassination attempts.

He was born in December 1957 into a well-to-do political family from the influential Pahstun tribe, the Popalzai, in southern Afghanistan.

He studied politics in India for six years, obtaining a masters degree in 1983. On graduating, Karzai moved to Pakistan to join the resistance against Soviet troops who invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

After rising through the movement’s political ranks, Karzai took a position in the government of anti-Soviet factions after the Soviets’ 1989 defeat.

When the factions turned on each other, dragging the country into civil war, Karzai left again for Pakistan.

He briefly backed the Taliban movement that emerged in the early 1990s but soon withdrew his support.

Karzai has a son, born in 2007, with his physician wife, Zenat Karzai.

His official biography says he enjoys philosophy and riding horses. — AFP