A victim of Karzai's diplomatic game

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The Independent Online

The confirmation of the death sentence against Sayed Pervez Kambaksh by an ally of President Hamid Karzai, is no accident.

It comes at a time when the Afghan leader has been speaking out uncharacteristically against the Western liberators of his country.

His leaked comments in Davos doomed the candidacy of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon as the UN "super envoy" for Afghanistan last week.

Recently the President has been denounced in the Afghan media as a "US puppet" and has responded by draping himself in the Afghan flag to demonstrate his independence. He stood up to the Americans by refusing to allow the eradication of opium poppies by crop spraying, and defied the British and Irish governments by refusing to back down over the expulsion of two foreign experts working in Afghanistan.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Karzai went public with accusations that the British presence in Helmand had only made matters worse.

People in Kabul say the blasphemy sentence is not necessarily linked to the deterioration in the relationship between Mr Karzai and his Nato backers. But it is thought he decided to reject Lord Ashdown after Afghan and British media presented the appointment as a deal cooked up by the US and UK governments.

The strategy of distancing himself from his foreign backers presents a double-edged sword for Mr Karzai, who faces an election in 2009-10.

These are troubled times for Afghanistan, which today marks two years since the signing of the Afghan Compact, setting the country's long-term course for development. The British charity Oxfam said yesterday in an open letter to Mr Brown that "too many" of the pact's commitments have not been met in Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai's role is not easy as the elected leader of a country who has to juggle the demands of Western leaders marching into his office. He has not had a holiday since 11 September 2001 and he is showing signs of fatigue, contributing to the whispering campaign against him andtalk of his "misjudgement" in taking on the powerful donor countries. Maybe he should consider a – short – vacation soon.

'Biteback': Anne Penketh's blog: independent.co.uk/diplomaticlicence