By Joshua Partlow
Friday, November 20, 2009
KABUL -- President Hamid Karzai set two ambitious goals in his inauguration speech Thursday: to have Afghan soldiers and police take full responsibility for security within the next five years and to root out the pervasive corruption that hobbled his first administration.
In many ways, Karzai's words dovetailed precisely with the aims of the Obama administration. Both Afghanistan and the United States want to reduce the presence of foreign troops on the battlefield and in the prison system. And both now concede that bribery and misspent funding are among the most serious obstacles to progress in Afghanistan.
But many here doubt whether such goals can be achieved as the Taliban gains strength, and there has been little action to date in stemming corruption.
The electoral process itself left little reason for optimism. Karzai initially had a majority of the votes in the Aug. 20 election, but widespread ballot-stuffing erased his lead and set up a second round. His challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of the race in protest, saying the system that allowed the initial fraud had not been reformed.
"I don't think Karzai will be able to do the things he says. Afghans do not trust him anymore," said Hamidullah Tokhi, a parliament member from Zabul province. "All the things he promised when he took an oath in the last inauguration have not been fulfilled."
In a 30-minute speech in the presidential palace, Karzai repeated many of his themes from the campaign. He said reconciliation with the Taliban would be his top priority. He invited fighters to lay down their arms and said he would convene a council of Afghan leaders to try to reach peace through negotiation.
"To put an end to the three decades of war is what most Afghans want," he said, adding that "peace and security cannot be achieved only militarily."
But Afghan-led efforts at dialogue with insurgents have achieved little, and experts say funds devoted to encouraging fighters to give up their cause have been squandered.
Karzai spoke in front of about 800 people, including foreign dignitaries such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
In addition to Afghan security forces taking over from NATO troops within five years, Karzai called for all operations by private security companies to cease within two years and for Afghans to control their own detention system.
"Afghans want to take the lead on security and no longer depend on foreign forces," Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said. "It is our strong commitment that we have to grow our own national security forces to defend our country."
After Karzai took the oath of office and kissed the Koran, his two vice presidents, Mohammed Fahim and Karim Khalili, were sworn in.
Clinton, making her first trip to Afghanistan as secretary of state, described Karzai's goals as ambitious but worthy.
"We want to assist him and the military and police leadership in Afghanistan to move as quickly as they can, to stand up and deploy a professional, motivated, effective force," she said at a news conference. "We're going to work with the president to try to work toward the goal he set."
But U.S. officials seemed more enthusiastic about Karzai's statements on corruption, including his vow to push for a law requiring all senior officials to declare their property and assets. He promised to convene a conference to generate ideas for fighting corruption and said his new cabinet would include "expert ministers" who could lead with integrity.
"The government of Afghanistan is committed to end the culture of impunity and violation of law and bring to justice those involved in spreading corruption and abuse of public property," Karzai said.
Clinton said she was pleased with the level of detail in Karzai's speech about steps to tackle corruption. "We think that the issue now is to ensure that it is implemented, that we see results," she said.
Clinton said she was under no illusions about the difficulty of turning around an increasingly deadly war. On Thursday, two U.S. service members were killed in a bombing in southern Afghanistan, and a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a market in Uruzgan province, killing at least 10 people, officials said.
"The road ahead is fraught with challenges and imperfect choices, setbacks are inevitable, and we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish," Clinton said.
President Obama said Wednesday that he is close to deciding whether to send thousands of additional troops into the war, but senior aides said Thursday that he will meet at least once more with his advisers on the topic and that no decision will be announced before Thanksgiving.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.