After Afghan vote, an awkward task for Obama

After attacking Afghan leader Hamid Karzai for months, US President Barack Obama's administration now faces the awkward task of finding a way to help boost his credibility.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (C), First Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim (L) and Second Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili attend a news conference in Kabul November 3, 2009.

The Obama administration is studying whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan and had made little secret of its concerns with Karzai's alleged corruption and ballot-stuffing and his pacts with unsavory warlords.

Starting a new term under the cloud of a hotly disputed election, Karzai on Tuesday pledged to get to work to eradicate corruption. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama expected a "sustained effort" to improve governance.

Analysts said Obama now had a delicate balancing act -- pressuring Karzai to act without alienating the leader of a nation at the top of his priority list.

Jamie Metzl, the executive vice president of the Asia Society who served as an election monitor in Afghanistan, said it was crucial for Karzai to gain legitimacy in the eyes both of the world and his own people.

"If President Karzai doesn't succeed in rooting out corruption and improving governance within Afghanistan there is no level of American troops that can be provided that would bring any recognizable form of success," Metzl said.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the United States could channel more efforts through local leaders and non-governmental groups but that it was unavoidable to work with Afghanistan's leader.

"With Karzai, we need to hold him accountable and to stress to him that our aid is not limitless," she said. "But we also have to understand that the more we force him publicly to do things that he is reluctant to do otherwise, the more we undercut him."

She said that in any country, it was a hard sell to persuade leaders to undertake costly reforms that leave them less powerful.

"Inevitably there will have to be some sort of improvement in the relationship, otherwise we will be cut out or in a situation where he would be allergic to anything we suggest," she said.

Karzai enjoyed a warm relationship with former president George W. Bush after the United States and its allies overthrew the extremist Taliban regime and installed him in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Obama was immediately cooler to the Afghan leader. Two key players in his administration, Vice President Joe Biden and regional envoy Richard Holbrooke, have had well-publicized bust-ups with Karzai.

One lawmaker from Obama's Democratic Party opposed to the Afghanistan campaign said that Karzai's re-election showed why Obama, instead of considering boosting troops, should find an exit strategy.

"By all accounts, the election was not only a setback, it was a joke," Representative Jim McGovern said on public broadcaster PBS. "Is this where we're going to put our money? Are our men and women going to die for this?"

But Kamran Bokhari, an analyst at the Texas-based Stratfor think-tank, argued that the Obama administration set back its own goals in Afghanistan by picking a fight with Karzai.

"There's a world of difference between Afghanistan and other parts of the world," Bokhari said. "Politics in Afghanistan is actually the politics of warlordism -- alignments between warlords."

"When you should be dealing with the Taliban insurgency, this whole idea of trying to get someone better than Karzai seems to have undermined whatever little semblance there was of stability and state governance" from Kabul, he said.

Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that despite the feuds, the Obama administration and Karzai's ultimate interests were in synch.

"The US certainly would like to see President Karzai's credibility increase among the Afghan people," she said.

"And of course Karzai needs the assistance from the international community not only to fend off the Taliban but also to provide reconstruction and development aid," she said.

"So it's absolutely critical that the US finds a way to work with him."

Source: AFP

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