By Peter Graff
KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama aims to bring the Afghan war to an end before he leaves office, he said on Wednesday, the eve of a swearing-in ceremony Western officials hope can help salvage Hamid Karzai’s tattered reputation.
Hillary Clinton arrived in Kabul to attend the re-elected Afghan president’s inauguration, her first visit as U.S. secretary of state and the most senior visit by a member of Obama’s administration, which has kept Karzai at arm’s length.
Karzai takes his oath on Thursday, three months after a vote marred by widespread fraud. The election, intended to bolster the government’s legitimacy, had the opposite effect, driving a wedge between Karzai and Western countries whose troops defend him.
Clinton, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will be among 300 foreign dignitaries to attend the ceremony at Kabul’s presidential palace.
In an interview with CNN, Obama said he would soon announce the results of a long-awaited review, which would include an exit strategy to avoid “a multi-year occupation that won’t serve the interests of the United States”.
“The American people will have a lot of clarity about what we’re doing, how we’re going to succeed, how much this thing is going to cost, what kind of burden does this place on our young men and women in uniform and, most importantly, what’s the end game on this thing,” he said.
“My preference would be not to hand off anything to the next president. One of the things I’d like is the next president to be able to come in and say I’ve got a clean slate.”
In eight years of war the Taliban insurgency is now at its deadliest, the Western force protecting Karzai is at its largest, and the Afghan leader’s own reputation is at its lowest, wrecked by election fraud, corruption and weak government.
Security for the inauguration in Kabul will be extreme, with roads closed in the capital. The government declared Thursday a holiday and told citizens to stay off the streets. Reporters will be barred from attending the swearing-in ceremony itself.
The centerpiece will be Karzai’s inauguration speech, with Western officials hoping to hear a specific program to combat graft, improve performance and limit the influence of warlords.
“We would like some sort of roadmap. We want some clear direction given here,” a European diplomat said.
A U.N.-backed probe concluded nearly a third of votes for Karzai in the August 20 poll were fake, meaning he failed to win the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round. He was declared the winner anyway when his opponent quit before the run-off.
“No one can change the fact that Karzai won the election through fake votes and support from notorious warlords in return for ministerial and high-ranking posts,” said white-bearded Abdul Shukoor as he entered a Kabul mosque for noon prayers.
“When the government is based on cheating and compromise, I can guarantee you there won’t be any improvement for many years.”
Obama has yet to visit Afghanistan as president, and halted predecessor George W. Bush’s practice of regular phone calls with Karzai. In the CNN interview, Obama gave a lukewarm endorsement of Karzai, saying his focus was on the government as a whole.
“I think that President Karzai has served his country in important ways. If you think about when he first came in, there may not have been another figure who could have held that country together,” Obama said in the CNN interview.
“He has some strengths, but he’s got some weaknesses. And I’m less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people in a way that confers legitimacy on them.”
In Western countries, public support for the war has tumbled as the insurgency spreads and death tolls soar.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Tuesday found that 52 percent of Americans now believe the war is not worth fighting, although 55 percent believe Obama will choose a strategy that will work.
Obama has already presided over a massive escalation of the war. There are now nearly 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans, more than half arriving this year.
Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has requested tens of thousands of additional troops, warning that without them, the war will probably be lost.
Karzai’s government announced anti-graft measures this week, including a new major crimes police task force, prosecutors’ unit and tribunal — steps welcomed in the West, although it remains to be seen if they will be more effective than previous efforts.
Karzai was installed by the United States and its Afghan allies after they helped drive the Taliban from power in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He won a full term in the country’s first democratic presidential election in 2004.