Lords of Kabul


His dashing figure and aristocratic demeanour once prompted compliments from world leaders and couture tsars alike. He was Afghanistan’s beacon of hope, albeit set there by the Americans. He had a chance to tame the turbulent, tribal Afghan politics after the Taliban leadership was overthrown.

But today President Hamid Karzai, the darling of the West in 2004 is derisively referred to as “not even the mayor of Kabul,” a reference to his increasingly limited jurisdiction.

Western expatriates and locals alike complain of his inability to reign in corruption and the provincial warlords. He is not averse to bestowing favours on his Pashtun relatives, and there are fears that if he opposes others like the unreconstructed Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a Genghis Khan-type figure who controls huge swathes of the north, and who, it is claimed has the blood of 30,000 innocent people on his hands, Karzai may be the target of other Uzbeks, his northern alliance allies.

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While locals in Kabul may look for a strong leader who will give them jobs, improve the rutted roads and provide a safe environment for children to go to school, Afghan warlords expect him to be loyal to his own tribe first, and relate to others under the ages old patronage system, if he is to hang on as president.

Karzai appears to be caught between two worlds – the old and the new.

Westerners are getting impatient and locals say that even within Kabul, Karzai appears weak and ineffectual. They are grumbling in the bazaars and in offices that a new leader is needed at the next elections, scheduled for September 2009.

One name that is coming up repeatedly on the lips of MPs, is that of the former Afghan minister for the interior, Ali Ahmad Jalali. Jalali was generally regarded as a strong figure in law enforcement and the counter-narcotics program. Having lived in the US for many years as the former director of the Washington-based Afghan-language news service at the Voice of America, it was claimed that he did not have a relaxed relationship with the former mujahideen personalities with their power struggles in the provinces.

It is said that he resigned in 2005 over differences with Karzai over policing and provincial governor appointments. And it’s not clear whether he has any intention of standing in the next elections either, although he has expressed interest.

If he returns and is elected president, he will face the same problems with one exception: he belongs to the same branch of Pashtuns (the Ghalji tribe) as the Taliban and so may have more influence than Karzai, who belongs to the Durrani branch of the Pashtuns – the two branches have been fighting for the last 400 years.

The Kabul bureau chief of Radio Azadi, M Amin Mudaqiq analysed the qualities needed to be head of a country divided strongly along ethnic and provincial lines.

“Historically speaking, a leader of Afghanistan must have military knowledge, an interest in and understanding of geopolitics and must know tribal customs,” says Mudaqiq sitting in his office, which is funded by the US Congress and where he has repeatedly been a target for assassination – like many others in the city.

“Karzai lacks the Afghan strategy of fighting. He has lived overseas; he does not understand that if you want to fight in an area you have to fight in that tradition. The tribal code comes first,” Moqadidi explains.

“You give a specific area agreed on by a tribe and you give him a contract – you say, I will provide you with weapons and anything else you need, in turn you give me your loyalty. But Karzai has not adopted that policy. And nothing else works in Afghanistan.”

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