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KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai is increasingly isolated and has surrounded himself with an inner circle of advisers who are urging him to move closer to Iran and Pakistan as the U.S. draws down its role in Afghanistan, several friends and aides tell The Associated Press.
Their advice is echoed in Karzai's anti-West rhetoric, which has heightened both in his public speeches and in private. He met recently with Iran's defense minister, and constantly cautions against trusting the U.S. to have Afghanistan's best interests at heart.
Several of Karzai's close friends and advisers now speak of a president whose doors have closed to all but one narrow faction and who refuses to listen to dissenting opinions. They say people allowed to see the president are vetted by an inner circle of religious conservatives who belong to a nonviolent wing of Hizb-i-Islami, a radical Islamic group whose relentless attacks on American soldiers forced the U.S. to withdraw from bases in northeastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
The group's leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was once an American ally but has since been declared a terrorist by the United States.
Although Hekmatyar shares the Taliban's goal of an Islamic regime, his men have also fought Taliban militants over the past year, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is said to despise him. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Hekmatyar spent five years in exile in Iran.
Inside Afghanistan's presidential palace, Iran, Pakistan and China are most often referred to as reliable allies, according to Karzai's friends and advisers. Last year, Karzai openly acknowledged taking "bags" of money from Iran to finance his administration.
"A lot of Afghans are very concerned about the direction the country is taking, moving away from the international community ... toward a more conservative practice in which the religious people and warlords have more power," Human Rights of Afghanistan Commissioner Nader Nadery said.