Hamid Karzai will be sworn in as Afghan president for a second term on Thursday, after the United States ramped up pressure on him to rid the war-torn country of its endemic corruption.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a press conference in Kabul on November 3. (AFP Photo)
Kabul is under a security lockdown for Karzai's inauguration at his heavily fortified palace in the presence of Western dignitaries who have urged him to implement concrete reforms after a disastrous re-election steeped in fraud.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her first visit to Kabul as Washington's top diplomat on Wednesday, saying the inauguration marked a "critical moment" for the nation following the controversial August vote.
Washington has increasingly expressed concerns about Karzai's reliability as a US ally and effective head of state, urging his government to eradicate corruption in order to counter an intensifying Taliban-led insurgency.
President Barack Obama has for weeks been mulling whether to send up to 40,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan, a decision made no easier by the political upheaval that surrounded Karzai's disputed re-election.
"He's got some strengths but he's got some weaknesses," Obama told CNN of Karzai, sayng his own decision on the troops would be announced "soon".
Obama's administration has warned Afghans that America's military commitment there, eight years after the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime and swept Karzai to power, will not be "open-ended".
"We also have to make sure that we've got an effective partner in Afghanistan. And that's something that we are examining very closely and presenting some very clear benchmarks for the Afghan government," Obama said.
Clinton has been at the forefront of international pressure on Karzai to ensure his next government is clean, directly linking future levels of military and financial aid to progress in eradicating official corruption.
"We stand at a critical moment on the eve of the inauguration of President Karzai's second term," said Clinton after arriving in Kabul.
"There is now a clear window of opportunity for President Karzai and his government to make a compact with the people of Afghanistan."
Her visit, previously unannounced, was accompanied by rigorous security, reflecting increasing instability in Kabul where suicide attacks have killed around 100 people in the last three months alone.
The capital is on high alert for Taliban attacks to coincide with the inauguration, with many foreign employees of embassies, the United Nations and aid groups ordered to remain indoors.
Armed police and paramilitary units patrolled Kabul roads and intersections, and combined security forces -- army, police and intelligence -- threw a ring of steel around the city, a security official said.
Few on a guest list of 800 were expected to rank above foreign minister for the event scheduled for 11:00 am (0630 GMT) at the heavily guarded presidential palace in central Kabul, Western diplomats said.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari also arrived Wednesday, officials said, and leaders of some Central Asian states were expected Thursday.
"By not attending, (Western heads of state) are sending the message that I am not your friend any more," one diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"Karzai has to earn political capital because he has none left," he said.
Karzai, 51, was declared re-elected on November 2 by his own officials after massive ballot-stuffing -- mostly in his favour -- marred the August 20 election and his challenger Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from a run-off.
In Berlin, where Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Wednesday a year-long extension to the German mission in Afghanistan, her foreign minister became the latest international figure to fire a shot across Karzai's bows.
Guido Westerwelle said the extension proved Germany was committed to security in Afghanistan, but warned: "It is about more than security, it is also about reconstruction and it is about good leadership, including the fight against corruption."
The United States and NATO members have more than 100,000 troops in the country fighting to end an increasingly virulent Taliban-led insurgency.