LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

For all the troops the U.S. is sending to Afghanistan, the war there depends quite a bit on a factor beyond American control. That factor is Afghanistan itself. President Obama acknowledged the challenge this month as he deployed extra troops.

President BARACK OBAMA: We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.

MONTAGNE: Still, the U.S. has learned over the past eight years that it can influence Afghanistan's course, but it can't dictate it. This week, we'll look at what stands in the way of a more stable Afghanistan. We'll report on the security forces, corruption, reconstruction and the rule of law. We begin with the government itself, and with a president who took office after deeply flawed election.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Kabul.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

JACKIE NORTHAM: A prayer from Quran echoed over last month's inauguration ceremony, marking President Hamid Karzai's second, and under the constitution, final term in office.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

NORTHAM: It was an elaborate affair, with an array of foreign diplomats in attendance. But that didn't mask the fact that Karzai's term was being ushered in on the tails of a messy and fraudulent election, which has left lingering questions about his legitimacy.

Mr. HAROUN MIR (Director, Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies): President Karzai is not an elected president. He was declared winner by the Independent Election Commission.

NORTHAM: A commission whose members were named by the president, says Haroun Mir, the director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies. Mir says Karzai's new administration suffers from a crisis of credibility.

Mr. MIR: President Karzai knows that he is in a very, very weak position. And it's for his own good to do something better than what he has done until now, because he knows that there is no alternative for Afghanistan. If he fails, with him the Afghan people will fail and the international community will fail.

NORTHAM: The international community may not like how Karzai ended up back in power, but it has to work with him in order to implement its policies and programs in Afghanistan. Still, the U.S. and Britain, in particular, have regularly admonished Karzai - both in private and in public - for not taking steps to stop the country's downward spiral. During his inauguration speech, Karzai seemed to say all the words the audience wanted to hear.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Karzai promised to stamp out rampant corruption and the flourishing drug trade, pull together an inclusive government and provide security and services to the people. Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, says it all sounded good. But Karzai may be a bit like the boy who cried wolf once too often.

Mr. NADER NADERY (Member, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission): People are not counting on what the president said in the inaugural speech because they've seen so many of that, promises in the form of speech. Now they're very much looking carefully how he delivers.

NORTHAM: The U.S. is also watching what Karzai delivers. Washington has renewed its demands on Karzai to show progress in the belief that a strong and credible government will help instill trust in the people and make them less likely to side with the Taliban. Analysts say there are some immediate steps Karzai could take to show his resolve, such as indicting senior officials for corruption or drug trafficking.

(Soundbite of jet engine)

NORTHAM: Another critical test for Karzai will come with the influx of tens of thousands of additional American troops. It's a chance to see if he can provide enough Afghan soldiers to partner with U.S. troops - a key provision in the new Obama strategy. Once areas have been cleared of militants, it's up to Karzai's administration to build local governance. But Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, says this will be difficult for Karzai, whose reach only extends so far.

Ms. CANDACE RONDEAUX (Senior Analyst for Afghanistan, International Crisis Group): You know, unfortunately, Mr. Karzai has become - you know, in the epithets of many Afghans - he's known as the mayor of Kabul. He has been unable to really get out because of the security risk.

NORTHAM: Rondeaux says Karzai can't truly gauge what needs to be done in the provinces.

Ms. RONDEAUX: He won't know - he won't have any input from the outside. He'll always be dependent on his sort of inner circle at Arg, in the palace in Kabul to, you know, to read the picture for him. And, of course, this is very dangerous. There are lots of Rasputins running around the Kabul palace right now.

NORTHAM: District and provincial councils can't pick up where the central authority fails because of the way the government is set up, says Nader Nadery with the Human Rights Commission.

Mr. NADERY: There are serious problems in the way the government is structured. It's very top-down, and it paralyzes and delays and slows a lot of decision-makings at the local level.

(Soundbite of motorized rickshaw engine)

NORTHAM: Small motorized rickshaws zip in and out of heavy traffic in the city of Jalalabad. It's a seat of Nangarhar province, and just a two-hour drive east of the capital.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Jalalabad has the feel of very big small town. Market stalls spill over from the sidewalks onto the street, selling just about anything you would want. Behind me, there's a makeshift currency exchange market. Afghan dealers sit patiently behind rickety glass display cases waiting to turn the local currency into Pakistan rupees or American dollars or back again.

Like all other provinces, Nangarhar's governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, is appointed by the president rather than elected by the people, which means the only person to whom the governor is accountable sits in the palace in Kabul.

There is a lot of money in this area from mining and import duties from the nearby border with Pakistan. Nangarhar is purported to have more millionaires than any other province in Afghanistan. Governor Sherzai is among them.

But there is enormous poverty here, as well. You can only go a few feet on the streets without being approached by another beggar.

(Soundbite of street sweepers)

NORTHAM: Teams of street sweepers clean the dusty roads in Jalalabad, but it's one of the few obvious public services here. Programs for the poor and needy get locked up in bureaucracy that travels from the local council all the way to Kabul.

(Soundbite of door rattling, slamming)

NORTHAM: Mullahjahn Shinwareh - a tall, grim-faced provincial councilor - opens his office in Jalalabad. He says there needs to be a change in the way things operate, that local government in Afghanistan needs more autonomy. So Shinwareh is embarking on a program without waiting for Kabul's approval.

Mr. MULLAHJAHN SHINWAREH (Provincial Councilor, Jalalabad): (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Shinwareh says he and councilors from three surrounding provinces are organizing a jirga, or meeting of elders, to talk with members of the Taliban in the area.

Mr. SHINWAREH: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: He says the jirga will not deal with extremists or al-Qaida, just moderates who are willing to negotiate. The jirga will ask them what they need.

Mr. SHINWAREH: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Shinwareh says if the jirga is successful, they'll try to extend it to other provinces.

He says this is something the central government should be doing on its own.

But the Kabul government hasn't laid out a detailed plan for the country, and according to Western diplomats, seems to do everything piecemeal.

Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament from Kabul, says the U.S. and others need to understand there are limits to the Afghan government's abilities, and that the international community may be asking too much of the Karzai government in too little time.

Ms. SHUKRIA BARAKZAI (Afghanistan Parliament): This is really a very heavy responsibility on our weak shoulders. We just want America to contribute as much as they can for us to stand on our own feet. It's like we are lost on our way from where we should start first.

NORTHAM: After eight years, the U.S. and other nations have made it clear their collective patience with the Karzai government is running out. But with no cohesive opposition and no new political leaders on the horizon, the international community will have to continue to deal with a flawed but vital partner.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, Afghan security forces are key to the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Unidentified Man: At the end of the day, Afghanistan must be defended by Afghans.

MONTAGNE: But already, the U.S. has spent years and billions of dollars creating from scratch an Afghan army and police, and they're still very much a work in progress. For more on our series, visit npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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