KABUL — On the eve of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s
swearing-in for a second term, speculation is growing that he could be forced
to step aside before he finishes his next five years in office.
The challenges before him are monumental: Regain the trust
of voters disenchanted by the fraud-tainted election that returned him to
power; assure frustrated world leaders that the billions of dollars spent trying
to stabilize Afghanistan haven’t been wasted or stolen; and, with the help of
U.S. and NATO forces, recover control of large parts of the country from
The 51-year-old president has to please contradictory forces
to survive: the discredited Afghan political allies who helped him win
re-election and the international community, which is demanding an end to
cronyism and to pervasive government corruption.
Karzai has to assure President Barack Obama quickly that he
has a credible partner if Obama decides to send as many as 40,000 more American
troops to the fight in Afghanistan.
Karzai will have to help build a competent Afghan military
capable of battling emboldened insurgents who now are operating in much of his
country. He also has to contain a thriving opium industry that’s the source of
90 percent of the world’s heroin supply, often with the complicity of corrupt
officials and police officers.
“It would take a miracle,” said Abdullah Abdullah,
the one-time foreign minister who abandoned a planned runoff against Karzai
earlier this month because of concerns that the second round of voting could be
as tainted as the first round was. “And, as Muslims, we don’t believe
miracles are possible now.”
“The leadership in Afghanistan is getting more and more
oblivious to the situation on the ground,” Abdullah told McClatchy
Newspapers. “It’s becoming obsessed with its own ideas, which are out of
touch with reality.”
The mood at the inauguration Thursday at the presidential
palace is likely to be decidedly more somber than it was five years ago, when
then-Vice President Dick Cheney led a high-profile delegation to Kabul as
Karzai became Afghanistan’s first democratically elected president.
Vice President Joe Biden, who has a strained relationship
with Karzai, won’t attend. Few world leaders are planning to fly to Kabul for
an inauguration that will take place under heavy security, bracing for
potential Taliban attacks.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the highest-profile
American leader who’s expected to take part in the inauguration, warned Karzai
last weekend that the United States might suspend civilian aid to Afghanistan
unless he takes new steps to prevent the money from being squandered or stolen.
With Karzai chafing at the international pressure, Obama’s
advisers are divided over how much support to offer the Afghan president.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, America’s top military
commander in Afghanistan, has warned Obama that the United States could lose
the war against the Taliban unless he agrees to send as many as 40,000 more
troops over the next year.
However, some administration officials are reluctant to
pursue an Iraq-style “military surge” until they’re convinced that
Karzai will match it with a “political surge” capable of restoring a
measure of confidence in the Afghan government.
Chief among the skeptics is U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry,
a retired Army general, who’s raised reservations about a major infusion of
troops without a commitment from Karzai to fight corruption.
Eikenberry outlined his concerns Monday when he joined top
Karzai ministers in unveiling a new anti-corruption task force in Kabul.
“Ordinary Afghans must be convinced that the powerful
can no longer exploit their positions to make themselves wealthy while the less
fortunate struggle to find work and to feed their families,” Eikenberry
“The appearance of luxurious mansions around Kabul with
many expensive cars … surrounded by private armed guards, is a worrisome sign
that some Afghans are cheating their people while claiming to be in their
Eikenberry and American officials in Kabul have been working
quietly with Karzai to ensure that discredited Afghan leaders don’t dominate
his next Cabinet.
American and Afghan officials told McClatchy that the U.S.
had given Karzai a list of 40 people whom it considered clean enough to be part
of the new Cabinet. However, Karzai also faces pressure to reward shady political
allies who helped him win re-election. Should he fall short of U.S. demands,
some expect the Obama administration to push the Afghan president from power
long before his term ends.
Sarwar Mohammed Roshan, who served as Karzai’s campaign
manager when he ran for president the first time, said the U.S. might have to
support a caretaker government eventually to replace Karzai.
“If we don’t do something drastic, believe me, we will
be sorry,” said Roshan, who suggested that adding more troops now would be
counterproductive. “Bringing in more troops and keeping the status quo
would create the impression that the Americans are making Afghans kneel before
this (Karzai) gang.”
Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who challenged
Karzai for the presidency this year, echoed those concerns.
“Hamid Karzai assumes his second term as president
without a honeymoon,” Ghani wrote in a recent opinion piece for The
Guardian newspaper in London.
“He faces a crisis of both domestic and international
confidence,” Ghani wrote, “and has the option to become either a
statesman or an outcast.”
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.