Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a Tuesday news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a Tuesday news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Afghanistan and its international partners breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when a much dreaded runoff election was called off and incumbent President Hamid Karzai was handed a second term.
It was hardly an ideal decision by Afghan election officials, given the level of fraud during the first presidential polls in August. A second round had been seen by many as vital to help restore Karzai's credibility.
But Afghans seem to care less about who leads them these days than they do about the need for real change.
Karzai offered verbal assurance to his people and the world soon after he was declared the winner.
"We will keep trying our best to address the questions that we have facing Afghanistan and to make sure that the wishes of Afghan people come true towards an effective, clean government, legally bound," he said. "And also at the same time, to make sure that the taxpayers' money ... coming to us from your countries is spent wisely and rightly by us, the Afghan government, and also by the donors themselves."
His main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, questioned how Karzai could make that pledge, considering the president didn't really win the election. The only reason Karzai is in office, Abdullah told reporters, is that Abdullah dropped out last week after concluding the runoff would be more fraudulent than the first round.
"A government which is derived on such an illegal decision will not be able to deliver," he said.
Such doubts over what Karzai will achieve during his second term are common. And not just because of a flawed election process.
"There is already a cloud over this administration and it doesn't have to do with this election season. It has to do with the way that President Karzai has governed Afghanistan since 2001," says John Dempsey, who heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
He says Afghans want their government to keep them safe and provide services and employment.
That is hardly the case now, with a growing Taliban menace, a stagnating economy and widespread corruption in which even the lowest civil servants demand bribes before they will do any work.
"There's a real opportunity right now, and perhaps a last opportunity, to get things right in Afghanistan," Dempsey says.
That sentiment is echoed on the streets of Kabul.
Most, like Abdullah, a 20-year-old shopkeeper, are adamant that Karzai deliver during his second term. He says the government has to get serious about eliminating corruption.
Fatima Nouri, a 38-year-old aid agency worker, says she expects the new administration to do more to curb suicide attacks and to spur job growth, all in the next year or two.
Haroun Mir believes the deadline is closer. Mir, who heads an Afghan think tank called the Center for Research and Policy Studies, says Karzai has no time to lose.
"He has to set some benchmarks that are achievable within six months and then put all of his efforts in focus in order to achieve these benchmarks," he says.
Things like punishing high-level government officials involved in corruption and appointing technocrats to help craft a government that is better able to deliver services.
Karzai's Western partners are also pressuring him to appoint competent ministers and change the way his government does business. That's because most of the international coalition in Afghanistan is dealing with frustrated constituents back home. They question whether the number of soldiers being killed in Afghanistan and the billions of aid dollars flowing in are worth it.
There are plans to set benchmarks, which Karzai will have to meet.
"And about six months down the road from the inauguration, there's going to be a major international conference, at which time people will look to those metrics and benchmarks and say, 'Has he made the progress that he promised to over the prior few months?' " Dempsey says. "And if not, then they're going to use the levers of financial assistance and military assistance to the country in terms of trying to get him to change his behavior."
But as Mir and others point out, Karzai doesn't just answer to foreign partners. He has to repay a lot of Afghan power brokers — including notorious warlords — for the support they gave him during the election. They will be seeking Cabinet-level appointments and development contracts worth millions of dollars.