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Hamid Karzai declared winner as Afghan runoff is canceled

The government-appointed electoral commission says it has the authority to name a winner in the presidential contest because Abdullah, the only challenger to the incumbent, withdrew from the race.

November 03, 2009|Paul Richter and Alexandra Zavis

WASHINGTON AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — President Obama, facing an unanticipated setback to his goals in Afghanistan as he weighs whether to send in more troops, warned the country's leader Monday to get serious about eradicating corruption and developing a stable government.

Obama's administration faces a more difficult job in achieving his objectives after Afghan election officials canceled a runoff vote that had been scheduled for this weekend and declared President Hamid Karzai the winner of a new five-year term. The move, which follows August's fraud-tainted election, came after former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah bowed out of the rematch Sunday, saying the government-appointed electoral commission was biased in favor of Karzai.

The outcome left a shadow over Karzai and roused antiwar voices in Washington. Though administration officials called the end to the election uncertainty a step forward for Afghanistan, Obama could be harder-pressed to justify the major U.S. troop increase that his military leaders have recommended to bolster the fight against Islamic militants.

The president will decide in coming weeks on the request for a reported 40,000 additional troops, which would make for a U.S. deployment of more than 100,000, in addition to the nearly 40,000 from other Western nations.

He told reporters that in a congratulatory phone call to Karzai on Monday, he stressed that the U.S. and its allies wanted to continue helping Afghanistan, but that "this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter" in Afghanistan's governance, security and internal and international relations.

"He assured me that he understood the importance of this moment," Obama said. "But as I indicated to him, the proof is not going to be in words. It's going to be in deeds."

U.S. military officials have said that Afghans' trust in their government is key to the counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents. But they also say it is important to have realistic expectations about the government there, and to recognize that any improvements aren't likely to come overnight.

"The election wasn't going to turn a less than perfect government into a shining example of democracy," a Defense Department official said. "This is a journey."

White House officials signaled that Obama's phone call was part of a new campaign to help reshape Karzai's image and that of his government.

Though not all the details of that effort have been worked out, one official said, some in the administration are arguing in private meetings that Karzai should be pressured to set up a commission that would seek to keep corrupt Afghans out of the government. Some officials would also like to see members of Afghanistan's opposition receive appointments from Karzai, to make the government more widely accepted.

Some also say that Karzai should be pushed to make a few arrests of high-profile officials on corruption charges immediately, in hopes of helping restore public trust, the official said.

But other current and former officials agree that any effort to purge the deeply ingrained corruption in Afghanistan faces formidable obstacles. For example, high-profile arrests could backfire and further undermine confidence if the government doesn't carry out successful prosecutions.

Ronald Neumann, who was ambassador to Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration, said that after decades of war, many Afghans are uncertain whether they will have a job tomorrow, much less a pension.

"So the attitude becomes that you take what you can get, when you get it," he said.

Neumann said he believed the United States could gradually limit the level of corruption in Afghanistan by quietly urging Karzai to keep certain officials out of his government. But he said the United States should not seek to install any of its own choices, since "from Vietnam to Iraq, we have a dismal record of picking officials."

Neumann is nonetheless skeptical that such moves would have much impact on ordinary Afghans' view of their government, which he said is shaped much more by events in their daily experience, such as whether local police demand bribes.

The election turmoil has also buoyed war critics who oppose the deployment of more troops and are likely to use the latest developments to exert new pressure amid the administration's lengthy review of its Afghanistan and Pakistan policies.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) said that the "deeply flawed election in Afghanistan is just one more reason to question our current misguided strategy, which relies too much on military force and partnerships with corrupt government officials and security forces."

Some conservatives, too, raised questions about Karzai's continuing credibility.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) said Karzai should have yielded to pressure to replace electoral officials to ensure that the election was fair.

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