KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai's own inner circle considers him weak and sometimes unscrupulous, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show, a domestic vote of no confidence that may be more damaging than foreign criticisms.
Karzai, known to be sensitive about his team's loyalty, is likely to be infuriated by the idea of his cabinet discussing his flaws, making deals behind his back and sharing concerns with a U.S. embassy considered highly critical of his rule.
Dispatches from U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry were even less flattering, but Karzai's rocky relationship with Washington is well known, and criticisms are often voiced face to face.
Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal described Karzai as an "extremely weak man" who did not listen to facts, one cable dated February this year said, and former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar claimed Karzai did not understand U.S. policy in the region.
Zakhilwal said Karzai's inner circle had agreed to "collaborate to influence Karzai when they see him going astray," and support each other if they faced the president's anger for raising sensitive issues..
The cables contain allegations Karzai colluded in the intimidation of a senior official, and "ashamed" his Chief of Staff Umar Daudzai by pardoning narcotraffickers for political reasons, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.
The New York Times and Britain's The Guardian newspaper have been given advanced access by WikiLeaks to over 250,000 cables.
And Education Minister Farooq Wardak said Karzai's electoral reform after a Presidential poll marred by widespread fraud "was comparable to the power-grabs of the mujahedin in 1991-1992.," referring to leaders in the country's vicious civil war.
"(The comments) will feed into Karzai's sense of isolation and his distrust of those officials that he fears are too close to the foreigners," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
"Those quoted will probably try to argue that they were talking to an American audience, giving them what they wanted to hear. But the personal attacks on Karzai, the ones saying he is weak and paranoid, will probably stick." she added.
The leak of cables comes at a time of rising violence and heightened mistrust between Karzai and his Western backers, more than nine years into an unpopular war critics say cannot be won.
Both governments played down the impact of previously released cables earlier this week, but Karzai is expected to reshuffle his cabinet soon so ministers could face punishment.
His office declined immediate comment, and the U.S. embassy in Kabul said they would not comment on leaked documents.
Karzai's domestic critics did not themselves escape censure in cables that portray state corruption as the new norm.
A January cable detailing the likely line-up of Karzai's new cabinet described the agriculture minister as "the only minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist."
Another cable detailed how the transportation ministry collects $200 million a year in trucking fees but only $30 million is turned over to the government -- information sourced to Mines Minister Wahidullah Shahrani.
"Individuals pay up to $250,000 for the post heading the office in Herat, for example, and end up owning beautiful mansions as well as making lucrative political donations,"
The New York Times also quoted a former Afghan vice president denying accusations in one of the cables that he flew to the United Arab Emirates with $52 million in cash.
Questions about weak governance and corruption have long driven a wedge between Karzai and the Western leaders who have nearly 150,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, although many of the faults highlighted in the U.S. documents are well known.
But Washington has other problems with its Afghan partner.
Eikenberry detailed poor leadership and America-bashing from Karzai, said he was "paranoid and weak" and accused him of failing to grasp the "most rudimentary principles of state-building," which is key to the U.S. mission.
"His deep seated insecurity as a leader combine to make any admission of fault unlikely, in turn confounding our best efforts to find in Karzai a responsible partner," Eikenberry wrote in a July 2009 cable detailed by The New York Times.
Around 1,400 U.S. soldiers have died in the fighting since the war began in late 2001. The U.S. strategy rests on creating enough security for the Afghan state to win the loyalty of ordinary people, who otherwise may support the Taliban movement.
(Additional reporting by David Storey and Michelle Nichols)