By Sayed Salahuddin and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) – Re-elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai vowed on Tuesday to form an inclusive government after stern warnings from Western supporters he would have to work harder to root out corruption.
Afghan election officials on Monday canceled a needless presidential run-off vote after Karzai’s rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew citing serious concerns about the election.
The outcome leaves Washington and other Western supporters to work with a partner whose legitimacy has been questioned, while Karzai himself faces a newly strengthened opposition.
Karzai’s return removes at least one obstacle as President Barack Obama weighs whether to send up to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, where violence this year reached its worst levels since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.
Faced with stern warnings from Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other Western leaders, Karzai vowed to form an inclusive government.
“My government will be for all Afghans and all those who want to work with me are most welcome,” Karzai said in a nationally televised victory speech.
“There will be crucial changes in our future government. Now we are determined to use all our forces, by any means, to remove this stain (of corruption) from our soil,” he said.
But while Karzai said he was committed to reform, some analysts felt he did not spell out his plans in sufficient detail, indicating no major changes were planned.
“We are probably headed the next five years the way we’ve experienced the last five years,” Kabul-based political analyst Haroun Mir told Reuters.
Obama congratulated Karzai, but told him in a telephone call on Monday he had to get serious in cracking down on corruption and better serving his people. Britain’s Brown also identified building up the Afghan security forces, so foreign forces can leave gradually, as a key area for Karzai.
“What we want and what I think what he now wants is action on corruption, building up the army and police in Afghanistan and building an inclusive government,” Brown told a news conference in London.
Afghanistan endured weeks of political uncertainty after the August 20 first round vote was marred by widespread fraud, much of it in favor of Karzai, a crisis deepened by a resurgent Taliban who had vowed to disrupt the election.
The Taliban termed Karzai’s return a farce and vowed to continue its fight to drive foreign forces out of Afghanistan.
The Islamist militants launched sporadic attacks in the first round and had vowed to disrupt the run-off. They said their fighters had “paralyzed” the electoral process with their attacks, including an assault on a U.N. guest-house last week in which five foreign U.N. staff were killed.
“Even they were not spared in the U.N. guest-house in the heart of Kabul,” the Taliban said in a statement sent to Reuters.
Karzai called for “peace and unity” and repeated earlier calls for talks with “moderate” elements of the Taliban.
Afghanistan’s government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC) called off the vote on Monday, saying it wanted to spare the Afghan people the expense and security risk of a vote with just one candidate.
There are currently around 67,000 U.S. troops and 42,000 allied troops in Afghanistan. A White House spokesman said a decision by Obama on troop levels was still weeks away.
While under a critical eye from the West, Karzai still has plenty of support, especially in the Pashtun-dominated south and east. Hundreds took to the streets in celebration in the western city of Herat on Monday.
But not everyone in the capital was happy with his return.
“Whatever he has done during the last seven or eight years, it will be the same again,” Kabul resident Haji Daulat told Reuters Television. “So many people died during his term, and prices went up for everything.”
Karzai has ruled since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
“The credibility of the Karzai government is not going to be simply decided by this election, it will now be decided by the actions the president takes over the coming days and weeks,” said a Kabul-based Western official who asked not to be named.