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analysis

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks in Kandahar on April 4, 2010.STAFF/Reuters

Revealing his deepening skepticism about Afghanistan's leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has upbraided Hamid Karzai for threatening to throw in his lot with the Taliban.

"We have men and women who are over there putting their lives on the line to help the population in its struggle against the Taliban," Mr. Harper told reporters Wednesday.

"These remarks are not helpful and in the context of the dangerous work our people are doing, they are completely unacceptable to Canada and, I'm sure, the same is true for all of our allies."

Mr. Harper's comments not only signal a lack of confidence in Afghanistan's increasingly erratic leader, they reflect what sources say is the Prime Minister's longer-standing skepticism about Canada's prospects of making an impact on the troubled process of nation building in Afghanistan.

Recent comments by Mr. Karzai have undermined confidence among the United States, Canada, and other allies. Last week, the Afghan President accused Western observers of fraud in last year's elections. This week, legislators reported that in private meetings on the weekend, Mr. Karzai twice threatened to quit and join the Taliban, apparently out of frustration at Western pressure. It was seen by many as an attempt to dispel perceptions that he is a puppet of the West.

"He said, 'If I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban,' " Farooq Marenai, a legislator from the eastern province of Nangarhar, told the Associated Press. Mr. Karzai is further alleged to have said that the Taliban rebellion against a legitimate Afghan government "would change to resistance" against foreign occupation. Afghan officials have denied the President made the remarks.

Mr. Karzai's outbursts will not only deepen doubts in Ottawa about its Afghan partner, they are likely to undermine support from other NATO allies at a time when concerted pressure from them is the only thing likely to persuade Mr. Harper to extend Canada's military involvement in the Afghan mission.

Though it's widely believed that public opinion is all that keeps Mr. Harper from extending the military mission, the Prime Minister is in fact an Afghan skeptic, according to one person who has worked with him on the issue. Many in his government and the military favour extending the mission, but not the PM - and not just for political reasons. He wants results.

For almost two years, Mr. Harper has harboured deep doubts about the Afghan mission. He worries that extending it would mean throwing good money after bad, and, more importantly, lives with it. After years in which progress has been elusive, he doubts the impact Canada can have.

Mr. Karzai's recent erratic behaviour has contributed to those doubts, but only partly. Inside the Prime Minister's Office, the Afghan President has long been viewed as a leader who suffers mood swings and changes positions dramatically from one week to the next.

It was only the possibility of damage to Canada's reputation as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally that might have changed Mr. Harper's mind about extending the military mission beyond next year, one source said. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband appealed to Canada's sense of responsibility to its allies last week when they publicly asked Mr. Harper to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan past next July's withdrawal deadline.

But with the Dutch now planning to withdraw and others expressing doubts, Canada can hardly be singled out for its exit strategy. Mr. Karzai's outbursts, blaming Westerners for election fraud and threatening to switch sides, will do nothing to change the minds of those who have decided to quit Afghanistan.

The United States, which has been calling on its allies to contribute more to the mission, called Mr. Karzai's latest remarks "troubling." State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley warned they would undercut support in the United States and elsewhere.

There are efforts to mend fences. Mr. Karzai's spokesman has denied he ever made the remarks. The two top officials in Afghanistan's domestic election agency, accused of being biased toward Mr. Karzai in last year's fraud-plagued elections, have resigned - acceding to a long-standing demand of Western allies. The White House said Mr. Karzai's scheduled May 12 visit to Washington will go ahead as planned.

But the episode will not be forgotten by governments who have been pressing the Afghan leader to make good on promises to clean up corruption, and warning that unless he does, their mission will fail. European governments who face their own skeptical publics may be discouraged from increasing their commitments. The United States and Britain will find it harder to argue that Canada must re-up its NATO commitment as the doubts of allies deepen.

Mr. Harper's government knows it has no choice but to deal with Mr. Karzai. But at the same time, Canada is becoming one of his most vocal critics. And the Afghan President's blasts at his allies are cutting away any chance of changing the mind of a skeptical Prime Minister before next year's withdrawal.