Where does Karzai go from here?
Monday's riots in Kabul sent a wake-up call to the US-allied Afghan government for a stronger police force.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Mustafa surveys the broken shelves and shattered glass of his jewelry shop in Kabul, and breathes a sigh of relief when he sees soldiers from the Afghan National Army on the streets.
"Bringing the Army out is the only decent thing [President] Karzai has done in four years. Now the soldiers are here, the police can't steal and hassle people and we feel safe," he says, as a crowd of shopkeepers nod in agreement.
Their shops were at the heart of the worst street violence to hit the Afghan capital since 2001, after a US military traffic accident triggered a riot that engulfed the city leaving 14 dead and over 100 injured.
Haji Mohammed Akram, a shop owner who watched police flee their posts as guards from the Kabul bank opposite his shop fired on armed looters, says he can feel his hopes of peace ebbing. "If this is what happens when we have a traffic accident, can you imagine how quickly the city would fall if the enemy attacked?" he asks.
Four days later the streets are quiet, but confidence in President Hamid Karzai's government is at an all-time low. Residents and observers say that the government needs to restore credibility by reforming the Afghan police and insisting on better conduct for foreign troops.
"Clearly the government was totally unable to respond to the crisis. If this is the state of our police force then we are in serious trouble," says a Western diplomat, noting the violence unmasked weaknesses within the government. As the riots raged on Monday, Interior Ministry officials in charge of the police took their phones off the hook, while Karzai failed to make a public statement on TV until the riots - lasting some eight hours - had run their course.
"It was a wake-up call.... It underlined how badly things have gone and how we are nowhere near where we need to be," the diplomat adds.
After electing a Parliament and a president, Afghanistan has been hailed as a success story and frequently compared favorably with Iraq, where security is much worse. However, some of the initial accomplishments here are being overshadowed. Militias run riot, the police force barely functions, and most Afghans have seen little change in their lives, making it easier for a resurgent Taliban to recruit.
To halt the downward slide Karzai must look squarely at the reasons which fueled the riots, diplomats and businessmen say.
"The situation is not of his own making, but Karzai is locked in a palace and surrounded by people who tell him everything is hunky-dory. He needs to reach out," says Daud Sultanzoi, an MP for Ghazni Province where the Taliban insurgency has worsened. Palace officials could not be reached.
At the root of the problem is a corrupt, badly paid, and poorly organized police force with low morale. The force is chronically undersupplied, in some places lacking the basics of vehicles and weapons to do more than limited foot patrols. The Taliban often overrun poorly defended police stations in the south, sapping morale. Some police terrorize the general populace - and they are the only face of the government most Afghans see on a daily basis.
Monday's rioting in the capital demonstrated that for many police, concerns for personal safety and sympathy for those in the streets weighed more heavily than their duty to protect property and life. "The police took off their uniforms and joined the looters, so I am worried about the future," says Qasim, a security guard from Badakhshan who works in Kabul.
Lack of nonlethal weapons made crowd-control difficult.
"Why were the police so weak, why didn't they respond? We need special guns, water cannon, rubber bullets. There was no way to deal with unrest in the city," says Shukria Barekzai a legislator in Kabul.
Lack of jobs and a growing despair about the future further fueled the riot. Five years after the fall of the Taliban many parts of Kabul still have no sanitation, intermittent electricity, and open sewers running beside streets clogged with Land cruisers packed with foreigners and the new narco-elite. Reconstruction has come to Afghanistan - including schools, roads, and plans for pipelines - but many residents say it's too little and too slow.
Lastly, resentment against the foreign military presence is growing. US and NATO convoys drive around aggressively, frequently pushing Afghans off the road in their haste to reach destinations safely.
A week before the Kabul crash some 30 civilians had been killed by a US airstrike near Kandahar. Karzai paid a rare visit to the injured survivors and summoned the commander of coalition forces to a meeting over the incident. Such moves can deflect some of the anger - temporarily.
"This wasn't the first accident the Americans had and it won't be the last. They came to bring peace, but if they keep killing Afghans we will riot again," says a shopkeeper at the crash site in northern Kabul who asked not to be identified.