A Violent Wake-Up Call

Urbane, dapper hamid karzai has always come off well in the international spotlight. But the Afghan president looked decidedly uncomfortable last week as he addressed his own nation following a riot in Kabul on May 29--triggered by a deadly traffic accident between a U.S. military convoy and civilian vehicles that killed seven people. The violence was the worst to strike the capital since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. The mob's rage was directed partly at the U.S. military--but also, surprisingly, at Karzai himself. In one of Ka-bul's main squares, protesters burned a huge portrait of the president.

The 48-year-old Karzai has been running Afghanistan for four and a half years. He became the country's first democratically elected president in a landslide victory two years ago. But with the southern part of the country racked by a mounting Taliban insurgency, and economic progress slow and spotty at best, Afghans seem to be turning on their once popular leader. "The rioting was more anti-Karzai than anti-American," says author and Afghan expert Ahmed Rashid. "There's real anger against the president for the lack of reconstruction, for a lack of good governance and for his inability to control corruption and drug trafficking."

Part of the problem is that expectations were so high. To most Afghans and his international supporters alike, Karzai once seemed the ideal man for the job. While respected as a Pashtun tribal leader, he also represented a break with the country's traditional past--a president rather than a warlord, more concerned with the national well-being than lining his pockets. And he was perceived, rightly, as America's man, able to keep billions in reconstruction aid flowing.

Now, however, many Afghans, including many ethnic Pashtuns, decry his cautious governing style. They blame his timidity for allowing corruption to flourish once again in Kabul, and for doing little to stop the nationwide drug trade. Meanwhile, the Taliban have stepped up attacks in the south. "It's quite clear President Karzai wants to govern as the ruler of all Afghans and not displease anyone--but he has," Francese Vendrell, the European Union's special representative to Afghanistan, told NEWSWEEK. "He has not been able to act firmly. Many provincial governors are incompetent and corrupt, and many police chiefs are linked to the drug trade and criminal groups."

Of course, the picture is not all bleak. Billions of dollars have poured into Afghanistan since the Taliban's ouster, and some 23,000 American soldiers and 9,000 NATO peacekeepers are securing the country and training Afghanistan's fledgling Army and police. Girls are going to school in record numbers. Kabul is awash in secondhand cars brought in from neighboring Iran. New commercial buildings and ornate residences are sprouting. The latest consumer goods appear on store shelves.

But the good life is available to only a few. For most Kabul residents, electricity and running water are scarce, raw sewage runs in the streets, roads are broken, unemployment is high, especially among the young, and officials are corrupt. Some complain that they have to pay the equivalent of a $15 bribe simply to get a mandatory national identity card, in a country where the average annual income is less than $800. Of roughly $10 billion in aid pledged by international donors since 2001, only half has actually been distributed. (In February, 60 nations pledged an additional $10.5 billion.)

In the insurgency-racked south, poor villagers wonder where even that development money went. Mostly because of security issues, ethnic Pashtun farmers have seen little construction of roads, irrigation canals, clinics and schools. To make matters worse, they are caught between an increasingly aggressive Taliban and the nervous Afghan and Coalition soldiers who are tracking the militants. The opium trade is booming. Lacking agricultural input like seed, fertilizer and loans, many farmers have no choice but to grow hardy opium poppies for local traffickers who finance the cost of planting. (In March, the International Narcotics Control Board issued a report saying that crop-substitution efforts in Afghanistan had failed.) Emboldened Taliban members are increasingly visible in villages, preaching in mosques in hopes of taking advantage of peasants' frustrations. A Taliban spokesman boasted to NEWSWEEK last week that the insurgents are getting more weapons, more recruits and that "any fear the people may have had of helping the Taliban has vanished."

Karzai, who spends much of his time trying to balance competing political interests, has been slow to react to these problems. He has continued to tolerate Pashtun warlords who were toppled by the puritanical Taliban in the 1990s for their rampant misrule. He has appointed several as advisers, provincial governors and security officials, even in the face of widespread allegations of human-rights abuses, complicity in the narcotics trade and corruption. "The president has not been tough with these guys," says Ahmad Nader Nadery of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission. "Apparently for Karzai, concerns about security and internal political stability take precedence over good governance." Adds a Western diplomat in Kabul, who declines to be named because of the sensitivity of his comments: "There's a widespread perception that the president too often consults people from the old jihadi generation whom most Afghans have firmly rejected." It took a concerted international lobbying effort over many months to force Karzai to transfer the notorious governors of Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces early this year in advance of large NATO troop deployments to the southern region this summer.

It's unfair to blame Karzai alone for the country's failures. A large portion of aid money never gets into government hands, going largely to foreign NGOs and contractors. What's more, Taliban attacks against aid workers--five Afghan NGO employees were killed last week--have prevented foreign development groups from working in most of the insurgent-infested southern provinces. In a poll last December, 83 percent of respondents gave favorable marks to Karzai's performance. But that was six months ago--before the Taliban's spring offensive. "He's not as popular as he was," says Shukria Barakzai, a female member of Parliament. "But there's really no alternative."

The government's most immediate challenge is to beat back the Taliban insurgency. Coalition forces are currently engaged in major operations in Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan, where weak or nonexistent governance has created a power vacuum. Amitabh Dubey, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, says that U.S. and NATO troop levels in the south have been "inadequate." Without a local military base, he notes, provincial governors must rely on the warlord militias to resist the Taliban. "That's quite a nasty bind." Dubey also says that the rise of competent Taliban leaders--in particular Jalaluddin Haqqani--have led to a revival of the Taliban, who are aided by sympathetic governments in the Pakistani provinces of Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier, on the other side of the border. "I don't think there's any doubt the Taliban has grown in size and influence in some areas of the south," says Col. Thomas Collins, spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition forces. "There are some areas that are not governed."

The big question is: in the wake of last week's upheaval, does Karzai know he's got a serious political problem? By the weekend he finally took some action, firing or transferring 80 top police officials. But earlier, in a taped TV address, he had labeled the rioters "opportunists and agitators." That may be partly true, but ignores the very real concerns and complaints of many Afghans about his performance and government. "Karzai should treat this as a wake-up call," says author Rashid. "But if his people are telling him this was a conspiracy, he will not learn the lesson that changes have to be made."

The changes most Afghans want to see--better governance, less corruption, more security--are not only the president's responsibility. International donors will have to find ways of delivering more bang for the aid buck. And Karzai will have to build stronger, cleaner provincial governments in the south if he wants to permanently marginalize the Taliban. "It's a problem that [must] be solved with more than military forces," says Collins, the Coalition spokesman. Otherwise, Afghanistan will start sliding back into the chaos from which its people are desperate to escape.