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Afghans unfazed by envoys' cables detailing corruption, vote-rigging

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai talks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on November 23, 2010. Afghan President Hamid Karzai denied meeting a purported top Taliban negotiator, who may have been an imposter.


However embarrassing it might be for Western diplomats to have their private gripes about President Hamid Karzai's personality and peccadilloes made public, their exasperation with him comes as no surprise to many Afghans.

"It's not a constructive relationship anyway," said Fawzia Koofi, a women's activist and member of the Afghan parliament. "So many bad things have already been said in this relationship that it's absolutely damaged already."

Over the past week, the online whistleblower Wikileaks has published reams of secret U.S. diplomatic cables. They catalogue the frustrations of Kabul-based ambassadors with Mr. Karzai and unvarnished descriptions of what they view as his erratic behaviour and acquiescence in official corruption.

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The release of the classified documents caused panic in Washington that the already rocky relations with the Afghan leader would become even more difficult, and just at a time when the U.S.-led coalition needs his co-operation to chart an exit from the war.

Canadian Ambassador William Crosbie, who is quoted in one of the cables angrily criticizing Mr. Karzai and the influence of his strongman brother in Kandahar province, warned this week that their publication could prompt a dangerous rupture between coalition allies and the Afghan government.

But in Kabul, Afghans said relations between Mr. Karzai and Western countries have been marked by estrangement and mutual distrust for some time.

Allegations of corruption, nepotism and vote-rigging - all cited in the diplomats' purloined cables - have been repeatedly made by Afghans as well. Sniping at the United States, and most recently the military tactics of the U.S.-led coalition fighting insurgents in Afghanistan, is also part of Mr. Karzai's standard political repertoire.

The leaked cables are unlikely to lead to a crisis in diplomatic relations because Mr. Karzai has become impervious to outside criticism, according to Afghan politicians. "He has come to the point of resisting everything that comes from the partners of Afghanistan," said Ms. Koofi.

While diplomats may have railed in private about the wealth and influence accumulated by Mr. Karzai's family, the power wielded by his relatives in Kandahar is already well-known and well-publicized.

"If you listen to the news here and elsewhere, you hear more Afghans than foreigners making these same complaints and accusations," said Khalid Pashtoon, an influential Kandahar political figure and member of the parliament. "The President is used to it."

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The words in the diplomatic cables may have been less than diplomatic. "But the problems are there," he added. "Unfortunately, Afghanistan is a sick country and needs fixing, not compliments."

Afghan media have reported on the Wikileaks disclosures, focusing mainly on accounts by U.S. diplomats of their conversations with government officials about how money is skimmed from public works projects. One cable in particular, describing a former Afghan vice-president arriving in the United Arab Emirates with $52-million in cash last year, has received particular attention.

The former official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, has denied in interviews that he ever carried that much cash outside the country.

But the possible diplomatic repercussions of the leaks have left most ordinary people indifferent.

"People have become apathetic, said Zabihullah Jalali, a security consultant who was strolling with his two children at the Kabul zoo, where the main attractions are a creaky Ferris wheel and a few bedraggled long-legged birds in a pen.

"During the presidential election [in 2009] Karzai was angry with the United States and the West, and then we heard the U.S. wouldn't support him if he didn't crush the corruption," he said. "But then nothing happened. So sometimes we think it might be a kind of game they're playing, the Afghan government and the American government."

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About the Author
Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

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