International

Afghanistan's Karzai Sees Himself As 'Almost Historic Figure'

Afghan President Hamid Karzai; Nov. 20, 2010; in Lisbon.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The U.S. and its allies may see Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, as an erratic, ineffective, even troublesome leader. But Karzai has a different view of himself.

Those who know and work with him say he sees himself as an almost historic figure, and compares himself to Ahmad Shah Durrani, considered by many to be the founder of modern Afghanistan.

In his final term in office, legacy is increasingly important to Karzai, and standing up to the U.S. may be one way of bolstering his image. American and other foreign officials in Afghanistan say they waste a lot of time and energy putting out fires ignited needlessly by Karzai, and simply trying to keep him placated and in line.

This was apparent recently when — in the course of just a couple of weeks — the U.S. and its allies had to scramble to keep the lid on two issues. First, Karzai admitted he has been taking bags of money from Iran for several years. The Afghan leader said the millions of dollars received from Tehran helped to pay government employees, a claim that was widely disputed.

Another test of wills between Karzai and the U.S. played out during this same time period, when Karzai began pushing hard to have private security contractors in Afghanistan disbanded before the end of this year.

Karzai has always maintained the heavily-armed security workers are destabilizing the country. The U.S. and its allies agree, but said the deadline was unreasonable. There were many stormy meetings over the issue, involving intervention from senior administration officials such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

At one point, Karzai stormed out of a meeting. In the end, he relented and the private security contractors have been given conditional extensions.

But the whole episode was draining and, according to several American officials involved in the issue, took a toll on the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship.

Eikenberry has dealt with President Karzai for many years. He concedes there are problems at times, but also points to the fact that allies are at odds sometimes — but still remain friends:

"It has its points of pressure," he says of the U.S.-Afghan relationship. "It has its places of disappointment and as it should be. ... But, what's pretty extraordinary — eight years of this, and we're still fighting side-by-side."

Here's a quick clip of Eikenberry:

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry

(NPR foreign affairs correspondent Jackie Northam was part of the team that worked on a series of stories about Afghanistan for this week's editions of All Things Considered. Part one — "For Invaders, A Well-Worn Path Out Of Afghanistan" — aired Monday. Part two, on the aftermath of the Soviets' withdrawal, was on Tuesday's show. More of Jackie's reporting about Karzai is due on today's edition of ATC. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.)

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