KABUL, Afghanistan — Whoever wins the US presidential election will have to deal with a huge problem that’s barely been mentioned on the campaign trail: Afghanistan.
Both major candidates may wish the war was heading toward a quiet conclusion but it shows every sign of getting more complicated as the withdrawal of NATO troops gathers pace.
Relations between officials in Washington and the government here have reached the stage where much of the talk coming out of Kabul is now openly suspicious of American intentions.
Rather than strengthening the bonds between two supposed allies, the last 11 years of conflict have been wrought with suspicion and resentment.
Behind closed doors, experts believe the West’s relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai has become increasingly tense. That’s now spilling out into the public. In recent weeks Karzai and his aides have issued a series of fraught statements not only concerning his country's future but also its national identity.
In early October he claimed the Western media was waging "psychological warfare" against the state. At the same time he accused America of failing to adequately equip the Afghan armed forces and of ignoring Pakistani rocket attacks that have allegedly killed dozens of civilians on this side of the border.
In response, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told journalists, "I think it would be helpful if the president, every once in a while, expressed his thanks for the sacrifices that have been made."
Although such outspoken comments by Karzai cause consternation in the international community, they are often met with sympathy among people here who blame foreign powers for fueling decades of fighting and political turmoil.
Abdul Hadi Wahidi, an advisor to Karzai on tribal affairs, told GlobalPost the president "has the right to express his views," particularly when it came to the subject of the cross-border attacks.
"America is very careless about this," he said, while emphasizing that both sides must maintain a strong relationship.
Afghans say they feel betrayed by the United States, accusing it of neglecting the terms of a strategic agreement between the two countries.
The pact in question includes a promise that Washington “shall regard with grave concern any external aggression against Afghanistan,” which it has also designated as a major non-NATO ally.
Relations first began seriously deteriorating four years ago, when US President Barack Obama came to power. Karzai enjoyed a close personal rapport with former president George W. Bush. That kind of connection has never existed with Obama.
When Karzai was reelected in 2009 amid allegations of systematic fraud, he is believed to have come under severe pressure from American officials to agree to a second round of voting. Since then disagreements between the two sides have occasionally boiled over into the public arena, only to turn private again after some behind the scenes diplomacy.
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But with the withdrawal of all conventional foreign combat troops scheduled for the end of 2014 and the Taliban-led resistance spreading, the stakes are now higher than before and patience is wearing thin. A sense of urgency and paranoia exists as the war enters a crucial period.
There are no significant differences between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney when it comes to Afghanistan policy, suggesting that little will change here whoever wins.
Mohammad Zubair Shafiqi is chief editor of Weesa, a daily newspaper. Interviewed at his home in Kabul near a squalid refugee camp full of families who have fled the fighting in southern provinces, he said ideological and political tensions were having a negative impact at ground level.
"American forces are going into villages in the countryside without permission, arresting people and doing their operations," he said. "This is all similar to the Russian invaders and occupiers and once again the bad memories of the Soviet Union are being refreshed in the minds of the people."
When the International Crisis Group published a study last month warning that the Afghan state could collapse if the transition process does not run smoothly it provoked uproar in official circles. Weesa, meanwhile, ran a story accusing the organization’s senior analyst here of carrying out espionage, accompanied by a picture of her.
Shafiqi told GlobalPost the report was part of a wider conspiracy to weaken the government's negotiating position as it discusses a possible long-term security agreement with the United States.
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Tensions worsened when the American special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, pointed out that an internationally recognized border separated the two neighbors.
Drawn during the days of the British Empire, Afghanistan does not regard the boundary as permanent and continues to lay claim to large swathes of territory on the other side of the frontier.
Abdul Hameed Mubarez was deputy minister for information and culture in the early years of the US occupation. He said Washington has traditionally favored Pakistan and, in his opinion, the latest developments confirmed its bias.
“I have many differences with Mr. Karzai, but on the relationship with the United States, now I am on the side of Mr. Karzai,” he said.
“We have never accepted foreign troops in Afghanistan. You have seen our history with the British. There is no difference for us between the British [Empire] and the Americans.”
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