ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
President Obama met today with his national security team to talk about Afghanistan. A successful strategy there requires a legitimate Afghan government. And as we discussed earlier this hour, the Karzai government's legitimacy is in serious question.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports now on doubts about whether the Afghan government will be a reliable ally.
JACKIE NORTHAM: There was always the assumption that the August presidential election in Afghanistan would involve a certain amount of fraud: ballot stuffing, intimidation and the like. But…
Mr. ALEX THIER (Director, U.S. Institute of Peace, Afghanistan and Pakistan): I think people were genuinely surprised at the scale of the fraud that occurred during the election.
NORTHAM: Alex Thier, the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says the good news is there were mechanisms in place to detect the fraud. The lion's share allegedly carried out by the camp of incumbent President Hamid Karzai. The bad news, Thier says, is the sheer breadth of the fraud reinforced the notion that the Karzai government was corrupt, which he says has a far reaching impact.
Mr. THIER: I think that the gravest danger coming out of this electoral process is that we end up with an Afghan government that is not seen as legitimate by the population. And that the international forces, who are effectively propping up that government, are therefore also seen as illegitimate.
NORTHAM: Among those international forces are some 68,000 U.S. troops. And the top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, is reportedly asking for as many as another 40,000 to help implement his counterinsurgency strategy.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, says the success of that strategy hinges on having a reliable government in Afghanistan.
Mr. BRIAN KATULIS (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress): If we have a weak leadership in Afghanistan that doesn't have the same objectives that we do in terms of stabilizing the country, fighting corruption, advancing good governance and justice in the country, then it calls into question whether a counterinsurgency strategy is the most appropriate means to advance U.S. national security interests.
NORTHAM: Some have questioned Karzai's credibility for several years. At one time, he was the darling of Washington and held regular teleconferences with President George W. Bush.
But the relationship between Karzai and the Obama administration is on much shakier ground. There are concerns about Karzai's competency to battle corruption and the flourishing drug problem in Afghanistan. And there has been criticism of his decision to appoint warlords to his cabinet.
For his part, Karzai has been sharply critical of the U.S. and NATO for airstrikes that have killed Afghan civilians.
Mr. KATULIS: That was a point of contention and a serious concern on the part of Karzai. He felt like those strikes were undermining him and leading to unnecessary civilian casualties.
NORTHAM: Senior Obama administration officials now acknowledge that Karzai will likely win the election, pending the results of a partial vote recount now underway.
Analysts here say the Obama administration has some leverage over the Afghan leader. It could work around Karzai or deal directly with local leaders to help build institutions. And it could withhold aid, on which Afghanistan is heavily dependent, says Alex Thier with the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Mr. THIER: So far, whenever we have played chicken with Karzai, it's usually us who swerves. And I think we have to be serious about withholding some resources if things are going wrong.
NORTHAM: Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, thinks the U.S.-Afghan relationship and Karzai's legitimacy are still salvageable.
Mr. ZALMAY KHALILZAD (Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan): But it's going to require efforts by President Karzai — should he be declared a winner — in terms of reaching out to the opposition and in terms of putting together a competent government.
NORTHAM: Khalilzad said he'll go back to Afghanistan once the election results are finally decided to help Karzai do that.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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