WASHINGTON — The announcement on Thursday that Afghanistan's second presidential election since the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001 will be held on Aug. 20 poses a critical question for the Obama administration: Should it favor a second term for President Hamid Karzai?
Relations between Karzai and the U.S. are worse than at any time in the past eight years. Each side accuses the other of conduct that has enabled the revival of the Taliban and soured many ordinary Afghans on the Kabul government and its international backers.
U.S. and European officials say they've grown frustrated by Karzai's failure to curb corruption, cronyism and incompetence, and they say he's refused to crack down on powerful officials, allegedly including one of his brothers, who are involved in the world's largest opium trade.
Karzai has grown increasingly angry at the mounting civilian casualties in U.S.-led military operations and has long complained that Washington has failed to push Pakistan to halt secret support for the Taliban. He said that his policies have been undermined by warlords the U.S. paid to keep order while U.S. troops were diverted to Iraq.
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Yet close cooperation between the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition will be vital if a new strategy the Obama administration is developing, including sending another 30,000 U.S. troops, is to succeed in ending the insurgency, experts said.
"What we have seen is a fraying of the relationship and mounting distrust on both sides," said Daniel Markey, a Council on Foreign Affairs fellow who worked on Afghanistan policy at the State Department.
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced in Kabul that the elections would be held on Aug. 20, three months later than set by the Afghan constitution, to allow more time for preparation.
Some experts think that Obama should favor an Afghan leader who's better able than Karzai to extend his writ beyond Kabul by building a government that can provide police protection, job-training, education, healthcare to some of the world's most destitute people.
Karzai "has forfeited the legitimacy that he had and the mandate that he received in 2004 (when he was elected)," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst now with the Middle East Institute. "He personifies for most Afghans all that has been going wrong."
Some top aides to Obama, who last summer criticized Karzai's government for not getting "out of the bunker," may share that view — among them Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden's frustration with the worsening situation in Afghanistan emerged during a meeting he held earlier this month with Karzai in Kabul before he resigned his Senate seat.
"It was a terse exchange," said a State Department official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Biden came on strong, talking a lot about the failures of the Afghan government to extend its authority."
Afghan news reports said that five potential Karzai rivals attended Obama's inauguration in apparent bids to win support from the new administration. State Department officials, however, said they came as private citizens, and there were no private meetings.
One of the five, Ali Jalali, an Afghan-American who served as Karzai's first interior minister and now teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, called the reports "baseless rumors."
Jalali acknowledged, however, that he's "seriously considering" opposing Karzai for "failing to deliver" and because "people have lost trust in the government."
Yet Obama would find himself in an awkward position if he abandoned Karzai.
U.S. officials and other experts acknowledged that Karzai is the only prominent Afghan who commands enough support among the country's divergent ethnic groups, especially the Pashtun tribes in the Taliban heartlands in the east and south, to win a national election.
Public opinion surveys conducted for the State Department make it "very clear that while Karzai has lost quite a bit of support, he's still liked," the State Department official said. "He is still the leading candidate."
Moreover, the U.S. has no choice but to ensure — in the words of several U.S. officials — a "level playing field" for the election. That means that all major candidates, including Karzai, have to be assured access to news media and the security and helicopters they need to campaign in a violence-wracked country with few roads.
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