During my recent visit to Afghanistan, I got the chance to meet with military officers, mullahs, and senior government ministers, as well as journalists, NGO activists, parliamentarians, provincial governors, tribal leaders, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai himself. The figures represented a wide range of views, but there's one thing virtually all agreed on: The sudden deterioration of relations between the United States and Karzai could not have come at a worse time.
Right now, the Afghan government is having trouble, simply put, governing. Nothing illustrates this more than the government's inability to control the violence that has rocked the capital, especially over the last nine months. The economy is shaky as well. Prices have been skyrocketing in Kabul. According to local real estate agents, home prices in some parts of the city have risen 75 percent in the past year.
Wealthy Afghans, including warlords and those earning money from defense contractors and construction and security firms, have prospered. Nearly everyone else seems to live in abject poverty. "Welcome to Afghanistan," one imam with very moderate social views told me. "Welcome to the poorest, most oppressed country in the world."
Which quickly gets us to the "c-word" and Karzai. According to Transparency International, the country is one of the most corrupt places on the planet, in a league with Somalia and worse than Haiti. The inability to make progress on the issue is the ostensible reason why the exchange between Karzai and U.S. President Barack Obama in Kabul at the end of March was so tense: 25 minutes, no photos, no news conference. Karzai's allies remain convinced that Washington wants regime change in Kabul and that the corruption issue is being used to delegitimize the current government.
Meanwhile, one opposition parliamentarian who attended a meeting with Karzai this week told me the president has "gone crazy." Karzai's recent accusations that the United States and the international community are to blame for fraud in last year's election stunned most people here. His comments that his government is on the verge of being seen as a "puppet government" and that the Taliban might even soon be seen as legitimate "national resistance" have been widely derided. His rival in the last election, Abdullah Abdullah, has accused him of "national treason." But scratch the surface, and you quickly encounter stark differences in narratives between the U.S. and Afghan sides.