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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.

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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.

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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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