KABUL — With a nationwide election only weeks away, the paradox of President Hamid Karzai has never seemed more apparent: He is at once deeply unpopular and likely to win.
Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, is blamed by many for the failures that have plagued the American-led mission there in the past eight years, from the resurgence of the Taliban to the explosion of the poppy trade.
Yet at the same time, Karzai enjoys a commanding lead in the race for the presidency, to be decided in a nationwide election Aug. 20. Since the beginning of the year, Karzai has deftly outmaneuvered a once-formidable array of opponents, either securing their backing or relegating them to the status of long shots.
Karzai's unpopularity and the likelihood of his victory have cast a pall of resignation over the campaign, with many Afghans preparing themselves for another five years of a leader they feel they already know too well.
The danger, Karzai's opponents and other leading Afghans say, is a kind of national demoralization, which will discourage Afghans from voting and dash hopes for substantial progress once the election is over.
For the Americans, the prospect of Karzai's re-election risks an even closer association with an unpopular president with a record of mismanagement. With the Taliban now stronger than ever -- early this month, attacks reached their highest level since 2001 -- a Karzai victory could threaten the American-led push to turn the war around.
"Karzai will not change, he has demonstrated that," said Ashraf Ghani, once a close friend of Karzai's, who is now running against him. "If he wins, there will be a downward spiral."
Americans keep distance
American officials, who have provided indispensable support for Karzai since he first took office in 2001, have recently tried to put him at some distance. The new U.S. ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, took the unusual step last week of attending news conferences of the leading challengers to Karzai, including Ghani and Abdullah, a former foreign minister, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
The Obama administration has reversed the previous American policy of nearly unconditional support for Karzai. President Barack Obama has chastised Karzai for his government's weakness and corruption.
Yet there is a widespread perception among Afghans that Karzai is the American favorite. Some U.S. officials express resignation that they may be stuck with him for five more years.
The Obama administration appears to have begun preparing for that prospect. U.S. officials, for instance, have done nothing to oppose the discussions between Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador in Afghanistan, about Khalilzad's becoming a senior official in a new Karzai administration.
"The Americans need to do more to distance themselves," Abdullah said. "Otherwise, they will be blamed for the failures of his government by their own public as well as by ours."
No one expressed more surprise about the perception of American favoritism than Karzai himself. Asked about it at a recent news conference, he curtly replied, "I'm glad to see this change of heart."
It is hardly surprising that Karzai's popularity is slumping. He has been in power for eight years, and in that period hopes for a stable and prosperous Afghanistan have been frustrated.
Only months ago, Karzai was considered vulnerable, and rivals were lining up to take his place.
But showing a deftness that has often eluded him in governing, Karzai systematically co-opted most of the Afghans who were considering running against him.
In neutralizing his opposition, Karzai has aggressively wielded the power of his office. With all the resources of government at his disposal, Karzai can dispatch his employees to work on his re-election, and he can use helicopters and airplanes to crisscross the country. No other candidate can match that.