A silver lining in Kabul?

By Ashish Kumar Sen

There may be a silver lining to the dark cloud that hangs over the legitimacy of a second term for Hamid Karzai.

A decision by Karzai's top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, to abandon plans to participate in a runoff with his former boss paved the way for Karzai to embark on another five-year term at the helm. A frustrated Abdullah dropped out critical of a system he believes is rigged in favour of the president. But the former foreign minister's actions have led to a situation in which Karzai retains the presidency without the support of a majority of his countrymen (and women).

That Karzai's powers had been significantly diminished well before the election was no secret except to the Afghan president, who has spent the past five years holed up in the Arg, his writ crashing against the walls of the presidential palace, while a resurgent Taliban has regained control of vast swathes of his country. The August election, in which investigators later found almost one in three votes for Karzai was fraudulent, drove home this bitter truth.

The administration of President Barack Obama has an opportunity to help Karzai see the importance of working with his opponents and must press him to deliver on some key issues — better governance, security and, equally important, the eradication of corruption.

This message was clear in the tone of Obama's phone conversation with the Afghan leader on Monday. The U.S. president said he had "emphasised that this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter based on improved governance, a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption, joint efforts to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces, so that the Afghan people can provide for their own security.” Taking a tougher line with the Afghan leader than in the past, Obama told Karzai the proof is not going to be in words; it’s going to be in deeds.

On Tuesday, Karzai told reporters in Kabul that he will "launch a campaign to clean the government of corruption."

Well before Abdullah abandoned his plans to enter into Round 2 of the electoral bout, scheduled for Nov. 7, the Obama administration was resigned to the inevitability of a second Karzai administration. I had written about this almost a month ago. At the time, the prospect of having won a majority of the votes emboldened Karzai to resist U.S. pressure, including subsequent appeals to agree to a runoff with Abdullah even as it became clear that the credibility of the election was in question.

Abdullah's decision to quit was a shrewd one. After having exposed the system as corrupt, the eye doctor dropped out of a contest many believed would have been won by Karzai. A Karzai victory would have sidelined Abdullah politically. By deciding not to go ahead with another vote, Abdullah has brightened the prospects of him being a key player in Kabul. The U.S. and its international partners have already begun discussing the possibility of a "compact with the Afghan people" that involves in some way members of Abdullah's group joining with Karzai. But, U.S. sources say, while they are not pressing for a coalition in Kabul, that decision is one for the Afghans to make.

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