By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 19, 2009
KABUL -- On the eve of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's inauguration for a new term, top U.S. officials on Wednesday called on him to reform his government and stem corruption as President Obama suggested that the United States is seeking "an end game" to its involvement here after eight years of war.
Dozens of international dignitaries, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, arrived in Kabul ahead of Karzai's inauguration amid heightened security throughout the capital. Her visit comes as the Obama administration has grown increasingly doubtful about Karzai's ability to control the bribery and illicit dealmaking that have sapped the Afghan public's confidence in the government.
Clinton called the start of Karzai's second term a "critical moment" and his chance to "have accountability and tangible results that will improve the lives of the people." Her suggestion that American patience was wearing thin with Karzai was echoed by Obama, who told television reporters traveling with him on his visit to Asia that he does not want to pass the conflict off to another administration but to find an "end game" as he concludes a months-long review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
Obama offered faint praise for Karzai, a man who had enjoyed robust support from the Bush administration but whose relations with the United States have been strained this year.
"He has some strengths, but he has some weaknesses," Obama said of Karzai. "I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people."
Months of political drama over the fraud-tainted election in August have coincided with an overhaul of American war strategy, creating a sense of deep uncertainty about Afghanistan's future. Obama said Wednesday that he was close to making his decision about whether to dispatch thousands more troops to the conflict and that he would announce the results of his policy review "in the next several weeks."
Obama told Chip Reid of CBS that he was livid about the information that has leaked during the Afghanistan policy review process -- "I think I am angrier than Bob Gates about it," Obama said, referring to the defense secretary -- adding that spreading such confidential material would be a firing offense.
Karzai's inauguration speech on Thursday will be scrutinized for signals about how seriously he intends to tackle corruption and whether he will push back against Western countries that have criticized his government during the disputed election.
Clinton, on her fourth trip to Afghanistan but her first as secretary of state, spoke briefly in the foyer of the U.S. Embassy to staff members who crowded on a staircase and peered down from higher floors to see the nation's top diplomat. She praised their courage and hard work while asking them to help "guide our thinking and strategy in Washington." Earlier in the day she told reporters that she wanted Karzai to form a "credible anti-corruption government entity -- a commission, an agency, something that truly can deliver on the concerns that we and the people of Afghanistan have about corruption."
She moved on to a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, regional envoy Richard Holbrooke and the top U.S. commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, followed by a dinner with Karzai.
The inauguration and arrival of the high-level delegations has placed Kabul in a vicelike grip of security precautions. Afghan soldiers and police fanned throughout the capital, closing roads, manning checkpoints and searching the few cars that ventured out. Helicopters patrolled the sky. The government declared Thursday a holiday and closed the airport to commercial flights.