An Afghan governor dies and Hamid Karzai cries. Is that a problem?

Bob Woodward's recent book amplified US whispers that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is unstable. There is a problem, but it isn't his brief show of emotion today.

By , Staff writer

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    Afghan President Hamid Karzai reacts during an event marking the International Literacy Day in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 28.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai teared up as he delivered a nationally televised speech in Kabul today shortly after the deputy governor of Ghazni province and five others were killed in a suicide bombing.

President Karzai, the man President Barack Obama is counting on to turn Afghanistan around, has long been a source of frustration for US officials, particularly since he retained power in a fraud-marred election last year.

While today's show of emotion reinforced US concerns about Karzai's reliability, the more important signals to be watching are what motivates him – and how external pressures are influencing him.

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US whispers about Karzai's instability

US diplomats have long privately whispered that there was something "wrong" with Karzai mentally. Those allegations erupted into the open last week with the publication of Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars," which is largely a chronicle of the US government debate last year about the wisdom of committing more troops and money to the Afghanistan war.

Woodward writes that US intelligence determined that the Afghan president is "manic depressive" and occasionally smokes marijuana. He also writes that US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry once explained the mercurial Karzai's behavior by saying he was occasionally "off his meds," though the book doesn't provide the source for that claim.

That such information is in the book isn't a surprise. US diplomats have privately referred to Karzai as "erratic" and similarly coded words over the years, and Mr. Eikenberry's distaste for Karzai has long been public knowledge. In a leaked embassy memo last year he called Mr. Karzai an "inadequate strategic partner."

Why Karzai's comments, not tears, were striking

Nor was Karzai's show of emotion today, which was connected by bloggers and newspapers to his mental state, terribly surprising. After all, he presides over a country where civilians, minor officials, and local police are being killed on a daily basis.

The Taliban have ramped up an assassination campaign in Afghanistan's provinces in recent months, particular in and around their traditional strongholds like Kandahar, but have also managed to expand the scope of their operations to areas like Ghazni, about 60 miles southwest of Kabul.

Having worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where political violence is an almost daily occurrence, I've always been surprised that the officials tasked with restoring basic public sanity don't break down more open.

I found Karzai's comments today striking for a different reason, since they jibed with what a number of Western officials and local politicians who know the man told me when I visited Afghanistan last July.

What it boils down to is that Karzai's interests are fundamentally different from America's. That's not earth-shattering, of course. But it's worth thinking about what motivates Karzai when trying to analyze his seemingly odd behaviors – from lashing out at the United States, his main patron, to mulling a possible deal with the Taliban if US officials pushed him too far.

A product of exile

First among Karzai's motivations is his background as a product of exile. Born to a leader of the powerful Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan in 1957, he fled over the border with most of his family in the wake of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. From Quetta, Pakistan, he helped organized Popalzai tribal support for the mujahideen resistance and returned triumphantly to Kabul after the Soviet pullout in 1992.

That triumph did not last long, with corrupt muj commanders fighting over the spoils of war once their common enemy was gone, and he fled the country again in 1995 as the Pakistan-supported Taliban began to consolidate its political position. In the wake of 9/11, the US turned to Karzai to help organize fighters against the Taliban, and his second triumphant return home came in 2001.

At that point, he'd spent nearly half his life in exile and seen his family's traditional position of prestige and power steadily eroded (his father was murdered in Pakistan by Taliban agents in 1999). While some of his brothers elected to emigrate to the US and become businessmen in that era, he stayed closed to his homeland and the political intrigues around ousting the Taliban from power.

"You have to understand that being in Afghanistan is everything to him," a diplomat who asked not to be named said in a recent interview. "For Karzai, it's about building and protecting the family name and influence."

Why Karzai wept today

Indeed, Karzai's tears today came not when reminiscing directly about the victims in Ghazni, but about what the cycle of violence could mean for his young son's future.

"I don't want my son Mirwais to become alienated, I don't want that," Karzai said, referring to his 3-year-old. "I want him to go to school here... I'm worried... I'm worried. God forbid Mirwais should be forced to leave Afghanistan."

US pressure on Karzai

There are other reasons beyond violence for Karzai to feel under pressure. US officials have privately been complaining for years about the expanding business and political interests of his brothers. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a US investigation has been opened into possible racketeering by his brother Mahmoud, who has insisted he is innocent.

US officials also privately complain that President Karzai has stymied corruption investigations into his family and other senior politicians, though they appear to have backed off from pushing hard inside the country for full-fledged corruption investigations.

That's in part due to the fact about how indispensable Karzai has become to the US and NATO effort. Afghanistan's post-Taliban constitution was written in such a way as to make Afghanistan's central government among the most powerful in the world, and Karzai confronts few formal checks on his power.

Afghanistan's local officials answer to the president, as do the senior police. It's a tough spot, or as Joshua Faust put it on The Afpak Channel, a blog hosted by Foreign Policy magazine, "You would cry too."

"He’s in an impossible situation, boxed in by a constitution designed by the West and an economy and society devastated by years of war," Mr. Foust writes. "Anyone else trying to govern Afghanistan is going to face the same constraints. Instead of blaming Karzai, the US should look at the structural and institutional reasons for his failed presidency."

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