Pressure mounts on Karzai as Afghan violence surges
Kabul, July 23: The Taliban for now have no chance of defeating Afghanistan's Western-backed government but the insurgency is sapping support for President Hamid Karzai who is facing his most difficult days since coming to power in 2001.
Karzai won a presidential election in 2004 with more than 50 per cent of the vote. But the optimism, also generated by last year's almost trouble-free parliamentary polls, has evaporated.
Many Afghans are frightened, despondent and angry about a revitalised Taliban insurgency raging in the south and east, analysts say.
The pressure on Karzai is mounting as NATO prepares to take over security from US-led forces in the Afghan south. NATO countries with troops in the firing line could soon be making much greater demands on him than a tolerant United States has up to now.
''The president, unfortunately, is under pressure from several sides,'' said Waheed Mozhdah, a former official in several governments and an analyst and writer.
''Where he should have influence, he is regarded as a hated figure, and in other areas, like the north, from the ethnic point of view, he can't do much to improve his position,'' Mozhdah said.
Karzai's Western backers are frustrated with what they see as ineffective leadership and a failure to tackle reforms and the drugs problem, analysts say.
The country is the world's top supplier of opium and programmes to stop opium poppy growing have had only limited success.
People complain their lives haven't improved in the five years since the Taliban were ousted from power.
At the same time, perceptions of heavy-handed tactics by foreign forces and civilian casualties have eroded support for a war against insurgents that Karzai is identified with.
Karzai has made repeated calls to US-led forces to treat civilians properly, and to go after what he calls the roots of the insurgency across the border in Pakistan.
But the calls have not stopped his popularity sliding, especially in his ethnic Pashtun homeland in the south where he should be strongest.
At the same time, Karzai knows if he were to stop the war, the winners would be the Taliban.
''The presence of foreign troops is crucial. If they leave, Afghanistan will go back to the way it was,'' Mozhdah said.
''Karzai can't stop the military operations but every day they carry on, his government loses support. It's very difficult for him.'' Anger and frustration seem to grow by the day for ordinary Afghans.
''No one is happy with a growing insurgency and a government that is unable to protect them from it, and an international community that has not prevented it,'' said a Western diplomat.
''Karzai has become the target for some of that frustration, but at the same time there's no one offering an alternative,'' the diplomat said.
Karzai has struck deals with old power-brokers and failed to get to grips with crucial reforms, such as revamping the police.
He has also failed to build a strong team and while he is seen as honest, he is also seen as weak, analysts say.
''We're not yet at a tipping-point but Afghanistan is at a crossroads,'' said an analyst who declined to be identified.
''This is an opportunity for Karzai to govern. If the security situation can be improved and we can have genuine reform, then I think we can get things back on track.'' Member of parliament Shukria Barakzai said the fact people complained about Karzai at least meant they still had some hope.
''I'm afraid of the day people don't ask him for things and don't blame him,'' said Barakzai, who has been critical of Karzai but has also backed the government on some issues.
Karzai would probably win a second term if he ran, she said.
''If he, even with all the faults, runs again he'll win. Why? Because there's no one else.''