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Karzai inaugurated – but where were the crowds?

Rejoicing is in short supply in the Afghan capital as the President's second term begins

Kim Sengupta
Friday 20 November 2009 01:00 GMT

There were no overt celebrations and the general public were excluded from the ceremony. As Hamid Karzai was inaugurated for his second term as Afghan President – three months after a fraud-riddled election – the capital was in a state of siege. Helicopter gunships clattered overhead and rings of armed checkpoints choked Kabul, the only sign of life on empty streets.

It was a far cry from his first inauguration five years ago. Much of the city was decorated in 2004, with streams of coloured lights, the red, green and black of the Afghan flag, and portraits of Mr Karzai hanging from buildings and street lamps. Banners proclaimed in English: "This Is the Birth of Our Freedom". When Mr Karzai entered the Great Hall of the Presidential Palace accompanied by the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, he received a standing ovation. The newly-elected president spoke with great confidence, without notes, about the brave new dawn for his country, the thirst for progress and peace. He was repeatedly interrupted by spontaneous applause from both Afghans and foreigners in a momentous day.

Yesterday, he was back in the Presidential Palace to be sworn in for another five-year term but there the similarities ended. This time he had won, with less than half of the popular vote, an election mired in vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing that drew scathing international condemnation. And he spoke carefully, seemingly unsure of himself at times.

He declared that Afghan security forces would be able to take over from international troops within five years; urged his political opponents to work with him for the sake of national unity and repeated his offer to Taliban fighters to rejoin the political process.

The only impromptu clapping to break out took place when he vowed to expunge the corruption that had permeated his government. "Those who spread corruption should be tried and prosecuted," President Karzai told the assembled dignitaries. "Afghan ministers should be professional and servants of the people, government officials should register their earnings."

Mr Karzai said most of the things his Western backers – who have become increasingly disillusioned with him – would have wanted to hear. Barack Obama, the US President, is still deciding whether to fulfil his commander's request for tens of thousands of extra troops to add to the nearly 68,000 Americans already there, more than half of whom have arrived since he moved into the White House.

The Afghan President said he would be organising two conferences in Kabul, one to tackle corruption and another to "start a new chapter" with the international community. Mr Karzai – and many other Afghans who are not necessarily his supporters – have been angered by what they perceive as foreign interference in their electoral process and yesterday there were signs of that lingering hostility. The President congratulated the work of the Independent Election Commission, which was Afghan- dominated and rubber-stamped his victory, while making no mention of the Election Complaints Commission, which had an international component and discounted a large wad of his votes.

Representatives of the foreign states which have sent millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan and whose soldiers are fighting and dying here – two US soldiers were killed in a bomb attack in the south yesterday – were in a very different mood to those present at Mr Karzai's first inauguration.

At that time Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, had declared: "We gather to mark a historic moment in the life of the nation and the history of human freedom. Now the tyranny is gone, the terrorist enemy is scattered and the people of Afghanistan are free." This time US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew in a day early with, according to diplomats, a message from her boss warning Mr Karzai to root out malpractice and carry out meaningful reforms.

After yesterday's ceremony she praised the "specific" way the Afghan President had said he would tackle corruption, but warned: "We are going to, along with the people of Afghanistan, watch very carefully to see how it is implemented... We are under no illusion about the difficulties of this mission."

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said: "I was told that what happens in the next five years would affect the next hundred years. Mr Karzai has made significant statements; we have to see whether the deeds match the words."

President Karzai has asked two of the men who stood against him in the August poll – Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani – to work with him for national unity. Last night Dr Abdullah rejected the overture, branding the President's speech as simply "more of the same". "He has spoken in these terms... for the last eight years, and the situation has actually worsened."

What Karzai said...

On security

"Afghanistan's wish for the soldiers of our friends to return to their countries soon can come true... We hope that the Afghan forces will lead the task of security... in the coming five years."

Can he deliver?

With the Western countries desperate for an exit strategy, any timetable would be seized upon and would get widespread publicity. In theory this means that British and American troops in the south of the country should be out in five years. But this timescale is predicated on Afghan security forces being vastly iimproved. The training periods have already been shortened to churn out the numbers in a attempt to reach targets, but producing cannon fodder is no use. One must also remember that the Taliban, aided by sympathisers in the Pakistani military, are also expanding and showing increasing sophistication in their attacks.

On corruption

"Those who spread corruption should be tried and prosecuted... The government officials should register their earnings."

Can he deliver?

Karzai's statement triggered impromptu applause. But in reality the register of earnings already exists, and Mr Karzai is one of the few officials who had declared his earnings. His critics say, however, that more important are the earnings of his family – especially of one of his brothers, an alleged drug dealer. It is also the case that allies of President Karzai who have been accused of corruption, such as Marshal Fahim and General Dostum, have not been prosecuted. It may be no coincidence that the two men secured Tajik and Uzbek votes for him in the elections keeping them away from his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

On national unity

"[I ask] all dear brothers, presidential candidates to co-operate with me... to make joint efforts for fulfilling serious national duties and for a united, proud and developed Afghanistan."

Can he deliver?

One idea is that a great gathering be held to bring various political factions and tribes together, similar to the one in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban which agreed to Mr Karzai becoming the leader. But talks between Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah to come to a deal after the fraud-ridden first round of the elections came to nothing despite the efforts of the US ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the head of the UN mission Kai Eide. Many say it would be better to have an effective opposition led by Dr Abdullah rather than spurious "unity".

On the Taliban

"We welcome those who are not affiliated with any terrorist organisations and whose hands are not red with Afghans' blood."

Can he deliver?

The Afghan president has made similar offers of reconciliation to insurgents who lay down their weapons before, and talks have been held in Mecca, under the auspices of the Saudi royal family, with representatives of the Taliban. British and other Nato forces have sought Taliban defection, often with monetary inducements. But the real question is whether negotiations should be with the Taliban leadership under Mullah Omar. And if that happens, what price is Mr Karzai and the West prepared to pay for peace? Abandoning womens' rights? The introduction of Sharia Law?

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