KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai will visit Washington on Monday without the fanfare and celebration he once enjoyed, but with a more hard-hearted welcome from a skeptical host and his legitimacy under sharp scrutiny.
Karzai's partnership with the United States and its Western allies has deteriorated significantly over the year, at times bearing a strong resemblance to a marriage on the rocks.
With record numbers of U.S. troops being killed and billions of U.S. dollars plowed into the impoverished country, some U.S. lawmakers will be reluctant to support defense and aid budgets if they are unconvinced about Karzai's leadership..
Last month, Karzai's relationship with Washington reached a nadir when he accused foreign nations, especially the United States, of causing widespread fraud in last year's presidential poll and reports -- later denied by officials -- emerged that he had threatened to join the Taliban.
The tone of the diatribe surprised even some of his allies in Kabul and the White House called his comments disturbing and untrue.
It was all a contrast to Karzai's chummy relationship with President George W. Bush when the two leaders regularly spoke with each other and when the Afghan leader was feted as a modern Muslim leader helping his war-torn country recover.
U.S. President Barack Obama has distanced himself from Karzai since his inauguration, despite it being his top foreign policy priority, until more than one year into his job. He stayed no more than a few hours in Kabul in a whirlwind night visit.
Balding with a trim salt-and-pepper beard, Karzai is a chief of the Popalzai tribal group of the Pashtuns and hails from a royalist family with a tradition of public service.
Born in Kandahar on December 24, 1957, the fourth of seven sons, Karzai went to school in Kabul before going to India to study for a masters degree in political science.
Politics became his passion, and he did not marry until his 40s, when he wed an Afghan doctor active in helping refugees in Pakistan. They have a son.
But despite losing the love of the West, as a Pashtun -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group -- the 52-year-old Karzai has strong support in the south and east and there is as yet no credible political opposition strong enough to unseat him.
Despite criticisms, Karzai has faced a huge task of pulling together one of the world's poorest countries that suffers from warlords, decades of conflict, a huge opium trade and unstable neighbors like Pakistan.
As a tribal leader he is best placed to lead Afghanistan's current policy of reintegration and reconciliation with some elements of the Taliban.
His status as a powerbroker in his home province of Kandahar, where he still garners respect from tribal leaders, could be crucial in U.S. efforts to tackle the insurgency there.
But his half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, who is accused of amassing a vast fortune from the opium trade, gives U.S. lawmakers another reason to pour cold water on Obama's Kandahar-focused troop surge. Karzai's half brother denies the allegations.
Karzai and his relatives, like millions of Afghans, fled to Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. In exile, he helped fund and arm anti-Soviet fighters.
He served as deputy foreign minister from 1992-94 after the fall of the Soviet-backed government, but quit as the government weakened in civil war that reduced much of Kabul to rubble and led to the rise of the Taliban.
At first supporting the Taliban, Karzai later worked from Pakistan to overthrow the Islamists. He returned to Afghanistan in late 2001 when he was appointed president of the country's interim government in a U.N.-sponsored deal in Germany.
As president he has survived at least three assassination attempts, the most recent in April 2008 while attending a military parade close to the presidential palace in Kabul.
(Writing by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Alistair Scrutton)