Karzai's Team Needs To Establish Strong Government

Even though Afghanistan's runoff election has been called off and President Karzai was declared the winner, the country's political future is uncertain. Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad talks with Renee Montagne about what steps Karzai and his main challenger Abdullah Abdullah may take to strengthen the rule of law.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To get an overview from an insider, we reached a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad was born there and he was in Kabul after this election, talking to both President Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

Ambassador, things have moved so fast in this last week or so, that it must be confusing to a lot of Americans. So, let us start with this, is it a good thing or a bad thing that Abdullah Abdullah dropped out of this run off election?

Mr. ZALMAY KHALILZAD (Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): It would have better, of course, if he had stayed in and there had been a true contest, as required by the constitution. But it would have cost a lot. It would have put some people at risk in terms of security, including coalition forces. It would have created an opportunity for the Taliban to disrupt things, to show their strength. And, of course, the results were predictable: President Karzai would have won. So�

MONTAGNE: So in that sense, it wouldn't have been - in a sense, you could say, though, it would not have been a true contest.

Mr. KHALILZAD: It would not have been a true contest, but I'm sure there are people in Afghanistan who feel unhappy this ended the way it did. But I think most people are probably relieved. Now, the politics of it, we'll have to see in terms of the reaction of important segments of Afghan society, and also in terms of whether Karzai can now bring a strong team representing all of Afghanistan together and establish a strong government.

MONTAGNE: One would then wonder if Abdullah Abdullah or his prominent supporters would be part of any such team. On our air, he told us that he would now work for change. In the Afghan context, how much power - as a member of what you might call the opposition - would Abdullah really have?

Mr. KHALILZAD: Well, it depends on what he decides to do. Will he form a political party? Will he be able to rally a considerable number of Afghanistan? And will he remain active himself, advocating the kind of policies that he campaigned on? He has said that he will do all those things that I mentioned, at least when I spoke with him a few days ago in Kabul. So he has an opportunity to remain a force. But how much of a force, that remains to be seen.

MONTAGNE: And what about President Karzai? You know him well. Do you think that he is going to reach out to Abdullah Abdullah? Or if not him personally, those who think like him? That is, those who want to tackle corruption? Make the government more efficient and responsive? All the things that Mr. Karzai has been accused of failing to do.

Mr. KHALILZAD: I have no doubt about him reaching out. I think that is his strength. He likes to engage. He likes to talk to everybody, invite everybody to the tent. The problem is translating that into a strong, effective team rather than inviting them to a tea party. And this will be challenge for the Obama administration, how to get President Karzai to go beyond reaching out, but put an effective government together, because there is going to be, perhaps, one last try to help Afghanistan succeed. And will he rise to the occasion? That is, President Karzai. Will he respond appropriately by doing his part, by putting an effective government, an effective team together?

MONTAGNE: Well, you know the country very well. If you were this administration, what steps would you take to make this Karzai government rise to the occasion?

Mr. KHALILZAD: Well, I - first, we have considerable clout. We shouldn't underestimate that. The United States plays a vital role. Afghanistan would not be able to pay the salaries of its officials if it wasn't for the United States. The - of course, the role of the military is so important. And the question for the Obama administration on how to translate that leverage into getting President Karzai to do his part, this is going to be very difficult. It's going to be a tough challenge. It will require delicate balancing on - in terms of positive interaction and respect, but at the same time appropriate pressure and engagement and conditionality to get him to move, to do what is necessary for his country and for the success of the world and Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Zalmay Khalilzad is a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He's now chairman and CEO of the advisory firm Khalilzad Associates. Thank you very much for joining us again.

Mr. KHALILZAD: Oh, it's great to be with you.

(Soundbite of music)

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