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Afghan president stands up to critics

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President Karzai told the BBC he had to do a 'million times better'

The BBC's Lyse Doucet questions Afghan President Hamid Karzai on hopes for the future and the mistakes of the past.

As Senator Barack Obama prepares to take power in the White House, it is clear Afghanistan will be at the top of his foreign policy priorities, and it will be a policy of change. But does that mean change all the way to the top?

During his election campaign, Mr Obama said he told Afghan President Hamid Karzai, on a July trip to Kabul, "you are going to have to do better by your people in order for us to gain the popular support that's necessary".

"I have to do a million times better by the Afghan people," President Karzai admitted. But in a BBC interview on a visit to London, he stressed this was an issue for the Afghan people to decide, not outsiders.

That is what Afghans will do next year if presidential elections go ahead as scheduled. A vote is required by the constitution but it is under constant discussion in the midst of deteriorating security.

It is no secret that Washington strongly backed President Karzai in the last elections in 2004.

It is too early to say who the next US administration will throw its support behind this time, partly because there is no clear and convincing alternative to the current president. But it is an issue - for the international community and for Afghans.

And the president is showing signs that he gets the message. A long-promised cabinet shuffle finally went ahead last month, after months of pressure on him from foreign envoys and Afghans.

Contracts and companies

I asked him about the loud and growing demands for him to tackle what many now describe as "rampant corruption".

Taleban militants on bikes near Wardak
Taleban fighters in Wardak province, close to Kabul

"It's part of my responsibility and I am addressing it very, very forcefully," Mr Karzai told me.

But he also pointed out the international community "had to do much better" in tackling its own corruption. He mentioned contracts and security companies.

Speaking in London, the Afghan leader cautioned there should not be a "blame game" for what he said had been a "difficult journey".

Seven years on from the fall of the Taleban, there are "issues the US administration will have with us and issues we will have with them".

Anyone involved in Afghanistan would agree this journey has been difficult and it took many wrong turns. Many, including Afghans across the country, are now saying the journey is failing.

Gates of Kabul

Violence is the worst it has been since the Taleban was toppled. Even the capital, Kabul, no longer feels safe.

US Gen David Petraeus meets Afghan soldiers
Gen Petraeus favours a more robust cross-border policy

In the last few weeks, hardly a day has gone by without a report of a kidnapping or killing in broad daylight. And Taleban fighters have advanced to provinces at the very gates of the capital.

A leaked draft of the latest US National Intelligence Estimate, the considered view of 16 intelligence agencies, described Afghanistan as being on a "downward spiral".

The US president-elect's recent description of the current situation was "precarious... and an urgent crisis".

"Precarious yes," said the Afghan leader. "But not an urgent crisis."

It is a sanguine assessment that some will see as the president's typically resolute optimism, but for others will cause dismay.

With his customary loyalty to friends and fellow travellers, President Karzai praised George W Bush as a "very strong backer of Afghanistan and a personal friend," even though he went on to list a catalogue of mistakes made by the international community where the US has played the leading role when it comes to troops and money, if not direction.

As critical as the international community is of Afghan shortcomings, there is also a recognition of its own blunders.

The outgoing EU envoy, Francesc Vendrell, has bluntly accused the West of lacking a coherent policy. "It was not destined to fail, but it's certainly not succeeding."

President Karzai pointed to a number of failures, including:

  • a reluctance to go after the Taleban and al-Qaeda in their sanctuaries and training grounds in neighbouring Pakistan
  • the failure to build "Afghan capacity" - the catchphrase for Afghan skills
  • the establishment of parallel institutions which impede the Afghan government's own development.

Mediating role

The first point has been the president's constant refrain. He urged his allies to "seize the opportunity". He described his often strained relationship with neighbouring Pakistan as now being "much better than ever".

Barack Obama will have to decide whether his Afghan counterpart is not just saying, but doing, enough to turn this situation around

On his visit this week to New York to attend a UN Interfaith Dialogue, President Karzai held talks with Pakistan's new President, Asif Ali Zardari, and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah who has begun to play a mediating role between certain elements of the Taleban and the Afghan government.

President Karzai expressed appreciation for the Saudi king's effort. He described it as an effort "to bring about a better environment between Pakistan and Afghanistan".

After years of private criticism and concern over Pakistan's role by some Western military officers and diplomats based on the Afghan side of the border, it is now widely accepted the only solution is a regional one.

The question is how to tackle this growing insurgency when the Taleban and al-Qaeda now hold sway over large parts of Pakistan's restive tribal agencies along the border with Afghanistan.

New ways

General David Petraeus, the new US commander for the wider region, is known to back a more robust cross-border approach. He is now exploring ways to engage tribal leaders and militias in the same way he did in Iraq even if many, including General Petraeus himself, know these conflicts are, in ways, profoundly different.

Hamid Karzai and Lyse Doucet
Mr Karzai told the BBC that the West needed to sort out the right strategy

Asked whether a troop "surge" would work in Afghanistan, as it did in Iraq, President Karzai emphasised it was not just a question of troops but the right strategy.

Minds are now being concentrated in many capitals on what is the right strategy in such a high stakes war.

"I wish our partners had listened to us more," the president remarked. He said his "first demand" to America's new president was to stop the growing toll of civilian casualties largely caused by US-led air strikes.

Mr Obama is described as a leader who listens. He will also have to decide whether his Afghan counterpart is not just saying, but doing, enough to turn this situation around.

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