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U.S. Warns Karzai On Fraud, Corruption, Military Ties

Holbrooke and Karzai at a press conference earlier this year

Holbrooke and Karzai at a press conference earlier this year

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. envoys and lawmakers have bluntly warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that American patience is running out, citing concerns about allegations of fraud and corruption and attempts to prejudge the outcome of last week's election.

Karzai met twice with U.S. President Barack Obama's envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, after the August 20 presidential election, including a private lunch in Kabul that turned "tense" when the U.S. envoy raised the possibility of a run-off.

After that confrontation, the two finished dessert and shook hands, officials said.

U.S. tensions with Karzai, in meetings with Holbrooke and a visiting delegation of U.S. senators, reflected both election-time stress and growing discord in American relations with the man who has been leading Afghanistan since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.

Endemic government corruption and his close ties with former militia leaders have eroded Karzai's support, both with the Afghan people and with Washington policymakers.

The Obama administration was particularly disturbed by Karzai's last-minute alliance with Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, officials said.

Karzai “has hurt himself in the eyes of a lot of people," a Western observer close to U.S. deliberations explained of Dostum's role in Karzai's campaign.

U.S. officials say Dostum, who fought for Afghanistan's Soviet-backed Communist government and later switched sides repeatedly during years of factional civil war, may be responsible for war crimes.

Karzai justified the move to Washington, telling officials he believed Dostum, who enjoys the overwhelming backing of ethnic Uzbeks in the north of Afghanistan, delivered key votes that could put him over the top.

Karzai would need more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off, but partial tallies so far show a close race with his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

Tensions flared the day after the election, when Karzai's campaign drew Washington's ire by declaring victory even though none of the results had been released by the independent election commission.

Washington fears such declarations undercut the commission and cast doubt on the election's legitimacy.

At their lunch meeting, Holbrooke urged Karzai to respect the election process, particularly given the possibility of a run-off. Karzai, who has told Washington that a run-off risks igniting ethnic violence, became angry, officials said.

Holbrooke has said Washington would make the fight against corruption a central focus after the election, a move that could further stoke tensions with a Karzai administration.

U.S. officials fear allegations of fraud will undermine Afghan public support for whatever government emerges after the election.

"There's been wholesale fraud to the benefit of Karzai in the past but there is no evidence that he was personally involved in fraud," a U.S. State Department official said after the vote.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed most Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting and only a quarter say more troops should be sent there.

"It's the last chance," Senator Sherrod Brown said, describing the message his congressional delegation delivered to Karzai last week during a post-election visit to Kabul.