How Do You Solve a Problem Like Karzai?

Designer Tom Ford once called him the "chic-est man on the planet." Former President George Bush said he had "a lot of strength and character." And the Washington Post once opined he has "the natural sex appeal of a Sean Connery."

If those words – uttered and written between 2002 and 2006 -- were the best of times for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United States officials hope these days are the worst of times.

Karzai has "surprised" and "dismayed" the United States over the last week, according to one official, launching rhetorical missiles at a country that has spent $300 billion in Afghanistan and will soon station 100,000 troops there.

The massive gulf that has opened between the two countries because of two recent Karzai outbursts threatens the entire effort in Afghanistan, U.S. civilian officials believe, since they need an effective partnership with a credible Afghan leader to whittle away at the insurgency. They want the gulf to widen no more, but they fear 2010 will be a difficult year.

"It's going to be a bumpy ride, and I don't think that's going to stop being the case for a while," said one U.S. official, requesting anonymity to speak more freely. "Everyone has to tighten their seat belts. I don't think this is the last we're going to hear of this."

Washington has heard Karzai's criticism of the West loud and clear since last Thursday, when he made what the State Department later described as a "preposterous claim."

"There was fraud in the presidential and provincial council elections – there is no doubt that there was very massive fraud, very massive, but not by Afghans. Foreigners carried out the fraud," Karzai said at the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission, which oversees election results.

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Given the chance to take back his comments publicly, Karzai declined, telling the BBC, "What I said about the election was all true." "That the US carried out the fraud?" reporter Lyse Douset asked. "That's exactly what happened," Karzai responded.

Two days after that outburst, Karzai went even further, telling members of parliament that the United States was beginning to act like an occupier.

Karzai Says He May Have to Join Taliban

One member of parliament present at the meeting said Karzai was so angry, the president implied he might have to join the Taliban if the United States does not stop "meddling."

"'If I am not able to [change an electoral law], and I can't uphold the sovereignty of this country, this will be turning into an occupation. We have to fight an occupation, and one has to join them,'" the lawmaker quoted Karzai as saying. By using the word "occupation," Karzai seemed to be aligning himself rhetorically with the Taliban, who try to convince Afghans to fight a nationalist insurgency against a foreign invader.

The recent defiance by Karzai has prompted his critics to question his stability.

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreigner minister and rival in the recent presidential election, worried this week that Karzai's statements hinted at erratic behavior.

"As a former colleague and doctor, I think this is beyond a normal attitude," Abdullah said.

Peter Galbraith, a former deputy U.N. official in Afghanistan who clashed with Karzai and is the main target of the president's current wrath, suggested Karzai was an impediment to progress.

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