Karzai Sees Afghan Security Control Within 5 Years

Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged Thursday to prosecute corrupt officials, and said the country would control it own security within five years. Karzai's comments came in an inauguration speech that kicked off his second term of office amid a growing Taliban insurgency and a cloud of corruption allegations.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, in southern Afghanistan, 10 Afghan civilians and two American soldiers were killed in attacks by militants. That violence came on the same day that Hamid Karzai was sworn in for another term as president. Karzai returns to office after an election marred by widespread fraud. He faces international skepticism about whether his government can overcome corruption.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PHILIP REEVES: The swearing in of a president is usually a proud moment for a democratic nation. But the ceremony that, today, installed Hamid Karzai in office for a second term struck a strangely discordant note.

(SOUNDBITE OF AFGHANISTAN'S NATIONAL ANTHEM)

U: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: After a rendering of the Afghan National Anthem, Karzai took the oath. He did so on a chilly, bright morning, behind the barricades that surround his presidential palace in Kabul. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among an army of foreign leaders who flew in for the occasion. The ceremony began with prayers from the Quran.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECITATION)

U: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The guests included the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the Aga Khan, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, and more. They sat under sparkling chandeliers in a large ceremonial hall, alongside some of Afghanistan's most powerful figures.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECITATION)

U: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Karzai cut a somber figure. He knew these heavyweights from the international community weren't merely there to support him. They also came to pressure him to reform his government before it's too late. They fear if it continues to be weak and profoundly corrupt, this will further strengthen the Taliban and al-Qaida and that the war against Islamist militancy could eventually be lost. Karzai spoke of his administration's achievements but he conceded it's time for change.

REEVES: (Through Translator) We have to learn from the mistakes and shortcomings of the past eight years.

REEVES: Karzai is under particularly intense pressure from the U.S. to crack down on rampant corruption among senior officials. Secretary Clinton has been urging Karzai to set up a credible anti-corruption government body. Today, Karzai promised effective and strong measures.

REEVES: (Through translator) 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.

REEVES: Karzai did take some thinly veiled swipes at the countries which have poured billions into his land, yet are also guilty of graft. He also spoke of his determination to crack down on the narcotics trade and to see Afghan forces taking charge throughout the country within five years. And he called on Taliban fighters to reconcile with the government. Afterwards, Clinton sounded impressed.

SIEGEL: We are heartened by what we see as the agenda for change and reform that was outlined by President Karzai. We think that the issue now is to ensure that it is implemented, that we see results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINES)

REEVES: Karzai is in a precarious position, that much was clear from the scene on the streets of his capital, Kabul, today. The city was locked down. The authorities declared a holiday, advised residents to stay at home and flooded the streets with security forces and armored vehicles. Fifty-five year old Ali Ahmed(ph), an unemployed father of five, watched Karzai being sworn in on TV and then ventured into the city. He is not happy about the prospect of another five years under Karzai.

BLOCK: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: I don't like it, he complained. The government is only interested in making money. No one cares for the ordinary people or their rights. Yet, decades of war and grinding poverty haven't dented the optimism of some Afghans, like 28-year-old Bismullah Zaheer(ph) who was this afternoon lining up to buy freshly baked bread in his local bakery. He still hopes the future will be better.

BLOCK: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: We're just praying to God Karzai will do something, he says. Ultimately, Karzai will be judged by what he does, not what he says. His critics took note today that he spoke eloquently of the need for honest government ministers. Yet, one of his two vice presidents is Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a former warlord with a very murky record.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Kabul.

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New Term For Karzai Brings Same Old Problems

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, i i

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, passes an honor guard as he arrives for his swearing in ceremony as the country's president for another five years at the Presidential Palace in Kabul Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan President Hamid Karzai,

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, passes an honor guard as he arrives for his swearing in ceremony as the country's president for another five years at the Presidential Palace in Kabul

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on Thursday came with all the usual ceremonial flourishes, including a suffocating security cordon. But his second term is already beset by severe doubts that he will be any more effective at tackling the country's rampant corruption.

Karzai's first five-year term ended amid record levels of violence and a growing sense by the international community that unchecked corruption and incompetence were threatening to undermine the entire Afghan government.

To make matters worse, the presidential election in August was marred by such blatant rigging by Karzai's supporters that it only served to highlight how widespread the corruption has become.

Speaking at Thursday's ceremony, Karzai pledged to appoint competent ministers and to go after corrupt officials. He insisted that his government "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."

But Afghanistan is seen as the world's second-most corrupt country after Somalia, according to a new survey by Berlin-based Transparency International, and most observers are pessimistic that anything will be different going forward.

'A Weak Leader'

"Karzai is a weak leader, and he always has been a weak leader," says Andrew Natsios, who ran the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Bush administration. "Karzai has kept the country together, but it's at a high cost, and it's now compromising the future of the country."

President Obama skipped Karzai's inauguration, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did attend to press the U.S. position that Karzai needs to shake up his Cabinet and crack down on high-level corruption.

"There is now a clear window of opportunity for President Karzai and his government to make a new compact with the people of Afghanistan, to demonstrate clearly that you're going to have accountability and tangible results that will improve the lives of the people," Clinton told staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul before the inauguration.

Obama is still mulling a new strategy for Afghanistan that could entail deploying up to an additional 40,000 U.S. troops. A decision is expected soon.

In the meantime, U.S. diplomats will be watching closely to see whether Karzai shakes up his Cabinet and removes ministers and other senior officials suspected of corruption.

"The existence of corruption at the Cabinet level is probably the most disconcerting element," says a U.S. official. "The fact is that there is not a clear example or a clear message from the top of the government that corruption will not be tolerated."

Some government departments, such as the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Mines, will come under particular scrutiny. The minister of mines, for example, has been accused of accepting a $30 million bribe to award a massive project to a Chinese mining firm, according to a report in The Washington Post.

"There are individuals who will be clear barometers for judging the Afghan seriousness of this commitment," the official says.

Everyday Corruption

Afghan deputy justice minister Abdul Qader Adalat Khwa declined to comment on the allegations about the minister of mines, but he insists that the Afghan government is trying to change.

"Right now, the reform process is still continuing," he said during an event in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. "The Afghan government would like to be accountable and responsible, and needs the international community to help."

But the corruption problem goes well beyond high-profile allegations of multimillion-dollar kickbacks.

Nearly a third of Afghans say they have personally experienced corruption when trying to obtain an official government document, according to a large-scale survey of the Afghan people conducted by the Asia Foundation.

"The people have lost complete confidence in their government, which wasn't the case before," says Nipa Banerjee, who ran the Afghan aid program for the Canadian International Development Agency from 2003 to 2006. "The legitimacy of the government is very much at stake."

More than a quarter of Afghans told the Asia Foundation's pollsters that they have seen corruption firsthand when dealing with Afghan courts and judges.

"In many areas, it's at the point where people don't even go to the formal justice system," says Masood Karokhail, deputy director of the Tribal Liaison Office, a private Afghan group that works on local governance issues. "The majority of people don't think there is justice in Afghanistan now."

Limits Of U.S. Pressure

U.S. officials concede that they have limited leverage over Karzai to force him to move more strongly. Threatening to halt aid money or even withdraw troops is simply not credible, particularly given Obama's high-profile commitment to strengthening the U.S. effort there.

"There's really not much of a punitive threat," says a U.S. official. "It's not constructive."

Instead, the Obama administration hopes to use the promise of additional aid to encourage tougher enforcement. Top U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke visited European capitals last week in part to try to persuade them to participate in a new international donor conference where new aid programs for Afghanistan would be tied directly to a concerted crackdown on corruption.

But the culture of corruption has become so entrenched at nearly every level of government that the challenge is daunting. Natsios says the problem is that Karzai has purposefully built a system through which he maintains power through a series of relationships with tribal leaders and warlords.

"The tribal chiefs that support him maintain the loyalty of their followers by doling out favors — money, jobs, influence," Natsios says. "It's like the old-fashioned political machines in the United States in the 1920s. But without it, the whole country would fly apart and it would be much worse than it is now."

A report sponsored by USAID earlier this year described just how pervasive the problem has become.

"Corruption has become a system, through networks of corrupt practices and people that reach across the whole of government to subvert governance," the report concluded. "Particularly perniciously, these networks ensure that the guilty are not brought to justice; often the officials and agencies that are supposed to be part of the solution to corruption are instead a critical part of the corruption syndrome."

Even worse, many Afghan officials have come to resent Western criticism when it comes to corruption, says Banerjee, who adds that senior officials are still "in denial" over how serious the problem is.

"They seem to think they are being unnecessarily chastised for this," she says. "They seem to think it's more a matter of perception."

Privately, U.S. officials concede that there is plenty of blame to go around for the situation.

U.S. reconstruction efforts are entering their ninth year, but Washington was distracted during much of the Bush administration by the invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath. This meant that there was less attention on issues like fighting corruption.

"Without U.S. and international leaders pushing on this, it became easier for Karzai not to lead, and for old habits to become resurrected and entrenched," says a U.S. official. "We lost the spirit and the energy that did exist in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. We weren't pressing as hard on this as we were in the past."

The energy has returned, the official insists. The question now is whether it's already too late.

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