POLITICS: Karzai's Difficult Balancing Act in Afghanistan, May 27, 2005, The Asian Wall Street Journal.

President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington this week came at a delicate time, given the turbulent events of the past fortnight in Afghanistan. Before his U.S. trip, Mr. Karzai had criticized some actions of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and sought control over their operations. He spoke out over allegations of prisoner abuse and sought the release of Afghan prisoners from U.S.-controlled prisons. Finally, he defended his administration's record over eradicating poppy cultivation for heroin, which accounts for nearly half of Afghanistan's economy.

Once in Washington, Mr. Karzai was a picture of diplomatic charm, taking care to ensure that not only his hosts, but the wider world, including the Islamic world, took note of his country's close relations with the U.S. This is not as contradictory as it might seem. Afghanistan is a fragile democracy and needs international support. At home, its president may be driven by domestic political considerations to make statements that are at odds with this need for international support. How to play such a hand effectively is an art which few leaders have been able to master, and Mr. Karzai faces a difficult balancing act. It is of utmost importance that he gets it right, for the consequences of any misstep would be disastrous.

Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the federal government is not yet in full command of the entire territory. The abduction of aid workers, although not as random and violent as in Iraq, continues. But with parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall, violence is expected to rise. The country is still reeling in the aftermath of the riots that erupted following a brief report published in the U.S. magazine, Newsweek, which claimed that U.S. security guards had desecrated the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, with a view to humiliate prisoners. The magazine later admitted the report could not be substantiated, but not before over a dozen deaths, wanton destruction, and the burning of American flags. Coming on top of reports of investigations into alleged prisoner abuse at the Bagram air base, President Karzai evidently felt the need to placate his domestic constituency by making some unrealistic demands.

These include seeking control over U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan. At present, some 20,000 American troops, and 8,000 other forces, mainly from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are in Afghanistan. Although the U.S. troops follow the usual practice of reporting to their own commanders, American diplomatic and military officials are careful to consult with their counterparts in the Afghan administration.

But whatever the pressures facing Mr. Karzai, it serves little purpose to make demands that would only hurt Afghanistan if they were fulfilled. It would be a disaster were international troops to leave anytime soon. Nor is there any prospect of handing control of international troops over to an Afghan government that is not even in full control of its territory.

Consider poppy cultivation, an issue inextricably linked with the Karzai administration's lack of full control over its own country. The government admits that only about a third of the crop area has been cleared, and it would take perhaps six years to eradicate the crop completely. Well-considered solutions exist, such as improving irrigation: In water-scarce areas, poppy-growing appears more rewarding for farmers because that crop requires much less water than staple crops like wheat. Creating -- and harnessing -- water reservoirs from the mountains should be a priority, though it would take time. Such activities are possible in pacified regions, but Afghanistan is not there yet. Warlords who control some of the ungovernable parts of the country do not have time for that, and neither do they relish the prospect of removing the lucrative crop grown in their territory. Officials at the highest level are involved with the trade. In a crackdown last week, the Afghan government arrested 15 officials, including a former senior intelligence officer.

The inability of the government to control the spread of riots last week only shows how easy it is for militants to whip up passions. At such a time, Mr. Karzai needs to calm passions, rather than provide them with further ammunition -- by making demands that stand no chance of being fulfilled. In doing so, Mr. Karzai only risks portraying himself as vulnerable, a move which does not make sense in the run-up to the elections. This is not the time for gesture politics and Mr. Karzai cannot afford to appear powerless in influencing the international community, which is why couching his concerns in more diplomatic language would make more sense.

As for the allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram air base, those are already under investigation and there must be zero tolerance for such abuses. As shown by the events at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, if abuses do occur they are uncovered and dealt with by the army's investigative mechanism.

President Karzai appears to understand this. In his remarks at the White House Tuesday, he was pragmatic and diplomatic, and made the crucial distinction between the alleged acts of a few individuals and the country as a whole. He pointed out, for instance, that an Italian was abducted by an Afghan, and added: "Individual acts do not reflect either on governments or on societies." This is a crucial distinction, often lost in a charged atmosphere, particularly among those who seek revenge for wrongs, real or imagined, committed by some, for which they believe their countries are responsible.

Such subtlety is lost on the militants who seek to overthrow the current order in Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai deserves praise for his remarks in Washington -- in particular for the way he pitched them to the wider Muslim world. His message would, however, ring even louder if he repeats it back home in Kabul -- instead of making demands that only risk making the situation even worse.