Afghan President Pledges To Clean Up Corruption

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was sworn in for another five-year term Thursday. Watching with a critical eye were foreign dignitaries who are pressing Karzai to make his second term in office far better than his first. Karzai promised to prosecute corrupt officials.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Hamid Karzai was sworn in for another five years as president of Afghanistan earlier today. His inauguration was clouded by questions about how he was elected and charges of widespread corruption in his government. Watching the ceremony with a critical eye were foreign dignitaries who are pressing Karzai to improve the government's performance. NPR's Philip Reeves is in the capital, Kabul, and joined us to talk about the inauguration.

Phil, first of all, what was the scene like?

PHILIP REEVES: Well, it took place at the presidential palace on an eye-scoldingly bright, cold morning. The audience included senior Afghans and ministers, judges, scholars, men and women, some of them in traditional headdresses and shawls and so on.

And it also, of course, included foreign dignitaries: Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, and the U.S. Envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke were there. There were foreign ministers from many countries: Russia, the U.K., France, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, was there, and also the Aga Khan was there.

MONTAGNE: And everyone was waiting to hear what President Karzai had to say in his speech after being sworn in. Of course he's been under incredible pressure. What did he say and were there any surprises?

REEVES: Well, one area where the U.S. and its allies have been applying intense pressure, of course, is on this issue of rampant corruption, including corruption among senior government officials. There's a feeling in the international community that Karzai's government, because it's weak and it's tainted by fraud in the election, needs - is lacking credibility, and that if he tackles corruption, this will strengthen it. The lack of credibility and his generally poor standing is, of course, thought to be playing into the hands of the Taliban.

Now, in his speech, Karzai repeatedly emphasized the need to tackle corruption and to end the culture of impunity in Afghanistan. It was clearly what the audience wanted to hear. In fact, there was a striking moment when Karzai was talking about the need for good governance when the audience sort of spontaneously applauded. Karzai may have been a little irritated by this, because he asked them not to applaud again until his speech had reached its end.

MONTAGNE: Well, you wonder, you know, if those in the audience - that would include the U.S., representatives of the U.S. and its allies, would be convinced by this - perhaps happy enough to clap, but not necessarily believing it's going to happen.

REEVES: Well, in the end they will, of course, judge President Karzai by his deeds, not by his words. I think they will, though, take some satisfaction that he was saying what they wanted him - what they wanted to hear, especially on this issue of corruption. He also spoke about the need for national unity and the need to learn the lessons of the last eight years, the eight years that have elapsed since the Taliban government in Afghanistan was overthrown.

MONTAGNE: Now, did Karzai mention the American and other international forces in Afghanistan?

REEVES: Yes, he did. Obviously there's a lot of interest in this because of the debate going on in Washington about whether the U.S. should be sending more troops or not. He talked about Afghan forces taking control of the country in the next five years, and also of moving in the next couple of years into areas which are now pretty much out of government control.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course ultimately very important are the Afghan people. He is being inaugurated as the president of Afghanistan. What about them and what about their reaction to this inauguration?

REEVES: Well, you know, they've gone through three decades of conflict and that conflict is still going on. During that time, they've heard an awful lot of speeches and not seen all that many results. Certainly many people are disenchanted with Karzai, although you do sometimes meet Afghans who are hopeful that this time around he will deliver. But it's a measure of the fragility of Karzai's position that his own capital, a place which he's supposed to run, unlike most of the rest of the country, was pretty much locked down today. There were armored vehicles on the street. There were more checkpoints. The place is pretty deserted. And the palace where this ceremony took place was closed to most of the media. And so that gives you, I think, a good picture of the embattled nature of this government that is now about to begin its second term.

MONTAGNE: Phil, thank you very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves reporting from the Afghan capital, Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai was inaugurated earlier today.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And even as Karzai was sworn in, we got a reminder of what national security experts like to say about the region. Afghanistan's problem is also Pakistan's problem. Just across the Afghan border today, in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, a man climbed out of a taxi. He walked up to a courthouse and he was being searched by police at the gate when he set off a bomb. The explosion killed 19 people. A senior Pakistani official today described such attackers as beasts who are killing our children.

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