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Published:January 28th, 2008 10:49 EST
A Familiar Face Looms as  Karzai Loses His Grip

A Familiar Face Looms as Karzai Loses His Grip

By Leon (Producer)

It wasn't long ago that Afghan president Hamid Karzai was seen as a dependable U.S. ally on par with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf. But as Afghanistan has fallen into violent chaos—along with Pakistan—tensions have erupted between Karzai and the United States and Britain. One of the most worried U.S. officials is Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born ambassador to the United Nations, who is seriously considering running for Karzai's seat himself when the next elections are held in 2009, according to several U.N. and U.S. government officials. Last Friday, Karzai blocked the appointment of British politician Paddy Ashdown, the former U.N. High Representative for Bosnia, as envoy to Afghanistan. During a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Karzai said that he and many Afghan parliamentarians did not want Ashdown in the post, according to a Western official briefed on the discussions who would only speak about them anonymously. Ashdown's formal role would have been to coordinate international relief programs. But American and British officials were hoping that Ashdown might also act as a kind of viceroy, bringing order to an Afghan government that finds itself besieged by a resurgent Taliban. Karzai's opposition grew as Ashdown sought to establish what his powers as "superenvoy" might be, one official said. "Karzai has been under a lot of pressure and criticism, and he might feel that he was being marginalized," says Jim Dobbins, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

U.S. and British officials have grown increasingly disenchanted with Karzai, who is now viewed as isolated in Kabul and surrounded by corrupt or incompetent ministers. Things are not much better next door in Pakistan, where militant Islamist groups have grown bolder and the embattled Musharraf is under pressure to step down. Like Karzai, Musharraf has begun lashing out publicly against what he sees as Western interference.

Khalilzad had a successful stint as U.S. ambassador to Kabul after the Taliban fell, helping to form the Karzai government and working with then Maj. Gen. David Barno, commander of U.S. forces, to pacify the country. He also served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and was one of the principal drafters of a 1992 "grand strategy" for U.S. global dominance that became known as the "Pentagon paper." Even so, in a 2005 interview with NEWSWEEK, Khalilzad said that one thing he had learned during his term in Afghanistan was that its people "don't want to be ruled by a foreigner."

Khalilzad has not directly denied that he is considering a run. His spokeswoman, Carolyn Vadino, told NEWSWEEK that "he intends to serve out his post as long as [President Bush] wants him in office. And then after that, he hopes to find a job here in the private sector in the U.S." But a senior Bush administration official who knows Khalilzad (and who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Khalilzad's plans) said the U.N. ambassador was actively exploring a run. Kenneth Katzman, Afghanistan expert at Washington's Congressional Research Service, said that "most observers think he would stand only if Karzai decides not to run." During an interview this week with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth (page 47), though, Karzai seemed to leave the door open for a re-election bid.

By John Barry and Michael Hirsh