Troubled Afghan president readies inaugural speech
KABUL (AP) – Under intense pressure to fix his corrupt government, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to strike a balance in his second inaugural speech Thursday: answer international demands for reform while appeasing political allies who returned him to power.
Karzai begins a second term facing an increasingly violent insurgency, an administration crippled by corruption, high unemployment and an impoverished population frustrated by eight years of war and few, if any, improvements to their daily lives.
Having come to his second term out of a fraud-tainted election that undermined his credibility with Western powers, Karzai is being watched particularly closely Thursday. His address could begin to heal wounds or to further alienate the international community.
An official familiar with a draft of the speech said Karzai would not pepper his address with rhetoric criticizing the international community. Still, Karzai is likely to wag his finger at foreign donors, as he has done before, for allowing millions of dollars to be skimmed from aid contracts before Afghans ever see the assistance. The official, who requested anonymity to avoid upstaging the president, said Karzai would repeat his demand for assistance to be funneled through the Afghan government as opposed to international organizations.
While Karzai was expected to address rampant graft and bribery that has corroded his government, his message is not likely to satisfy the international community, which is hinging future aid and troops on his resolve to clean up corruption. The Karzai government unveiled an anti-corruption and major crimes unit this week just as Afghanistan slipped three places to become the world’s second most-corrupt country, according to an annual survey by Transparency International.
“They’ve done some work on that, but in our view, not nearly enough to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to tackle corruption,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Wednesday during her flight to Kabul.
“We are concerned about corruption and we obviously think it has an impact on the quality and capacity of governing. So we’re going to be persistent, asking for the kinds of outcomes that we think reflect that they are serious about this. But I can’t predict what will or won’t happen at this point.”
On Sunday, Clinton linked additional civilian aid to better accountability on how the Afghans spend the money.
In his speech, Karzai also is expected to urge insurgents to lay down their weapons as well as share his vision of an Afghan security force that eventually can take over the defense of the nation, allowing foreign forces to leave, said a presidential confidante who also declined to be identified so as not to upstage the address.
Clinton, who was to attend the inauguration, said the U.S. does not have a long-term military stake here.
“We’re not seeking to occupy Afghanistan for the undetermined future,” she said. “We don’t want bases in Afghanistan. And I think that’s an important message.”
That’s exactly the message the Afghan government needs the Taliban to hear if there is any hope of getting the insurgents to the negotiating table.
“The Taliban think that Afghanistan is occupied by foreigners,” said Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, a former Taliban foreign minister who has advised Karzai on negotiating with the insurgents. “The government should find a way to let the Taliban know that they will leave.”
A senior NATO official, who sought anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about Karzai’s address, said the international forces want to hear Karzai embrace his security forces and back that up with resources, benefits, training – all the things a commander in chief would do.
In the capital, Kabul, security was tight, bracing for a possible attack by insurgents wishing to disrupt the inauguration. The event is attracting dignitaries from about 40 countries, including Asif Ali Zardari, president of neighboring Pakistan. He met Wednesday with Karzai, who accuses Pakistan of harboring the Taliban leadership in its lawless tribal area that borders Afghanistan.
Afghan forces outside of Kabul said they had secured roads leading into the capital and increased checkpoints at mountain passes.
“Every car will be searched,” said Col. Gul Aga Gurbuz, head of a regiment that serves as a quick reaction force for Kabul.
The insurgency in Afghanistan is on the rise despite more than eight years of war and the presence today of upward of 100,000 international troops. The Taliban has been emboldened by Karzai’s weak and corrupt government that wields little influence outside the capital. As he begins another five years in office, the president, with scant political capital, is seeking to shed the moniker of “mayor of Kabul.”
The international community rallied behind Karzai in the early days of his administration, but then failed to direct enough resources to the war effort. To get re-elected earlier this year, Karzai sought to bolster his political stature by aligning himself with some unsavory political allies.
He became president again after a messy election fraught with stuffed ballot boxes and a planned runoff vote that was canceled when his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out.
“I think Mr. Karzai is pulled toward many, many forces … because he made deals – votes in exchange for posts in the government,” Abdullah told The Associated Press during an interview this week. “How will he manage to do that as well as to balance the expectations of the international community for good governance, anti-corruption, so on and so forth? Let’s see.”
An official close to Karzai said the president was not expected to name his Cabinet until later this month, but would pledge in his speech to name responsible individuals. The official also sought anonymity to avoid upstaging Karzai.
Yet the president’s political friends are pushing him to give positions of power to their representatives. He has already collected lists of prospective ministers from his supporters including Gen. Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord allegedly responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war, according to an Afghan lawmaker close to the president, who declined to be named so as not to betray Karzai’s trust.
It doesn’t matter what Karzai says in his speech, Abdullah said.
“What he does afterward, and how he delivers is the test.”