Karzai under siege from Taliban in run-up to polls

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His grey tunic is impeccably pressed. His dark navy jacket hangs elegantly on his slim frame.

Yet it will take more than dress sense for the President to survive the latest challenge to his rule. His fusion of Afghan and Western savvy is being severely tested at this time.

Yesterday, in London, Mr Karzai laid a wreath at King's Cross station to the sole Afghan victim of the 7 July bombings, during a whirlwind two days in which he had wall-to-wall meetings with political and business leaders.

Back home in Kabul he is under siege as never before. The Taliban have stepped up their attacks in the south of the country, two months away from parliamentary elections.

Many believe that with the help of their former backers, Pakistan's ISI military intelligence, and infiltrated by al-Qa'ida, the Taliban are bent on returning to power through the gun rather than the ballot box.

Over the past year, the attacks in the south-east have become much more targeted and professional, according to senior British officials who express disappointment that even in Mr Karzai's home region of Kandahar the insurgency is on the rise.

"They are shooting clergy, unarmed clergy. They're killing women. They go and burn a school made of tents," President Karzai said yesterday in an interview, noting that cross-border activity from Pakistan was contributing to the unrest. Twenty-four insurgents were killed on the border last week.

He pointedly declined to praise Pakistani co-operation when asked how helpful Islamabad has been. "We are in contact with them. I spoke to the President twice at the height of those activities, the US government is in touch with them. For us, the end result is very important: that is, when these activities are reduced or when they cease completely, then we would call our co-operation successful."

Asked about foreign involvement in the Islamic insurgency, he said: "A lot of them are foreign." Authorities had arrested attackers from Arab countries, from Pakistan, and from central Asia, including from Kazakhstan, he said.

"They may be linked to al-Qai'da," he said, adding: "There may be all sorts of crazy elements. It's a multi-national thing." Four Arabs believed to be members of al-Qa'ida escaped from the US military's top-security jail at Bagram airport outside Kabul last week. The upsurge in attacks in the Pashtun south has come despite the presence of 70,000 Pakistani troops along the border. "We do see that they would not be able to carry out their attacks, they would not be able to have explosives or bombs or other material if somebody didn't help them. There definitely is help coming to them from somewhere," Mr Karzai said.

The US-backed President, who was democratically elected in November 2004 nearly three years after being appointed interim leader, rarely ventures outside Kabul.

The country is virtually cut in two, with the northern provinces relatively quiet while conflict continues in the south, where the US-led coalition is on the trail of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting down an American helicopter in the east of the country last month.

It is against this background that the parliamentary and provincial elections are scheduled to take place in September. But Mr Karzai said that, despite the gun culture and pervasive warlordism in the country, 60,000 weapons had been handed in during the disarmament process that ended last week. A total of 216 candidates have been barred from standing because of their links to armed groups. The next challenge for the government is the disbanding of illegal armed groups across the country.

The shadow of the country's opium production also hangs over the election. While some observers have expressed concern about corruption, Mr Karzai said he was more worried about drug money being used to fuel terrorism.