Tougher challenges face Karzai in new term

Nov. 10, 2009 at 11:00 AM
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KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai's new term in office hasn't begun on a happy note as new pressures and problems, both from at home and abroad, pile on his already weakened government while his deadly nemesis, the Taliban, shows no signs of relenting on its bloodletting.

After enduring nearly three months of election-related fraud and other accusations, Karzai in his new term faces a tough deadline from Western countries to rid his government of rampant graft and corruption and take tough measures to tighten internal security or else lose their support.

At his first news conference after re-election, Karzai admitted his government "has been seriously discredited by administrative corruption" and vowed to "remove this stigma." But Western powers, whose military and other support he needs now more than ever, want those words translated into action, the earlier the better.

On the domestic front too, Karzai is under pressure as Abdullah Abdullah, whose withdrawal from the runoff election led to Karzai's re-election, is seen as a growing political threat, with strong support in the north.

Also at home, there is a growing rift that threatens to get uglier between Karzai and Atta Mohammad Noor, an Abdullah supporter and the popular governor of northern Balkh province, a prosperous region of 2 million people that has largely remained off the Taliban radar.

Concerned Karzai might seek to assert his government's authority on the province, Atta told the Wall Street Journal: "Karzai is a thief of people's votes. Democracy has been buried in Afghanistan. He's not a lawful president."

As to what might happen if demands from Abdullah's side such as key posts in the new government are not met, Atta was quoted as saying: "We do not want to use violence to further our demands -- but the people have the right to defend themselves if democratic norms are violated."

Compounding Karzai's problems, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan last week decided to relocate about 600 of its international staff following a militant attack on a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul in which many died including five U.N. staff members.

Although U.N. officials assured the relocation will be a temporary step until security is tightened, the incident occurring right in the capital once again exposed the weakness of the Karzai government. It also highlighted the capability of the well-organized Taliban to strike at will wherever it pleases both in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, where the insurgency mayhem goes on unchecked.

The Kabul attack forced even Kai Eide, the quiet Norwegian head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, to issue a tough warning to the Karzai government to speed up reforms and reshuffle his government.

Noting the attack had brought relations between the international community and Afghanistan to a critical stage, Eide said: "There is a belief among some that the international community will continue, whatever happens, because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan. I would like to emphasize that that's not true."

Karzai's next term begins at a time when the coalition forces, especially the United States and Britain, are taking their worst casualties since the Afghan war began in 2001 and when public support for the war effort is dwindling in their home countries.

Afghan officials told The Times of London that U.S. President Barack Obama, who must soon decide whether to deploy more troops in Afghanistan, has given Karzai a six-month deadline to meet some of the conditions including cracking down on corruption and appointing reform-minded ministers or lose American support.

"Obama said they don't want their soldiers' lives wasted for nothing," one official said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was just as forceful toward the Karzai government.

Speaking in Parliament, Brown said Britain cannot and will not walk away from Afghanistan, the BBC reported.

But he also said the Afghan government has become a "byword for corruption" and warned Karzai that if his government failed to meet the five tests of security, governance, reconciliation, economic development and engagement with its neighbors "it will have not only failed its own people, it will have forfeited its right to international support."

Karzai's challenges multiply when other equally pressing issues are added to his to-do list, such as the largely unimpeded drug-trafficking whose money keeps the Taliban's machinery churning, providing adequate public healthcare, improving literacy and ensuring women's rights.

"We're going to know in the next three to six months whether he's doing anything differently -- whether he can seriously address the corruption, whether he can raise an army that ultimately can take over from us and that doesn't lose troops as fast as we train them," one of Obama's senior aides told The New York Times.

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