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In Second Term, Karzai Faces Immense Task In Afghanistan

President Hamid Karzai (center) with his vice presidents, Mohammad Qasim Fahim (left) and Karim Khalili, at a press conference in Kabul.
President Hamid Karzai (center) with his vice presidents, Mohammad Qasim Fahim (left) and Karim Khalili, at a press conference in Kabul.
After a protracted and controversial election process, many Afghans breathed a sigh of relief when incumbent President Hamid Karzai was declared the winner of the August vote.

Scenes of Afghans celebrating Karzai's victory were a rarity. But even among the celebrants, such as one Herat resident who joined a few dozen youngsters dancing in the streets after the November 2 announcement, their mood was often one of hope and fear rather than outright joy.

"We have gathered here tonight to celebrate Afghanistan, to celebrate democracy and the victory of Afghanistan," he said

"It is not important whether Hamid Karzai or Abdullah Abdullah is our president, the important thing is that peace is restored to our country. Long live Afghanistan! Long live peace and long live democracy!"

The formation of the new cabinet and what happens next has become fodder for endless discussion in teahouses throughout the capital, Kabul.

The Afghan Constitution sets no firm deadline for Karzai's inauguration and the formation of his new administration, but he is under strong domestic and international pressure to act quickly. And considering that after being appointed by Karzai and sworn into office, the new ministers face parliamentary approval, time is working against the president.

Disappointed Hopes

Afghans are wondering whether Karzai's second term will be any different than his first five-year term, during which his government failed to deliver on pledges to provide security and services, or to strengthen civil society.

Despite improving economic figures, Afghans see no end to their economic misery. Millions still depend on UN food aid or on illegal narcotics trade or production. And within the government, particularly in its lower echelons, officials often resort to corruption to cope with their own financial woes, further contributing to uncertainty in the country.

Many Afghans have come to resent the presence of foreign troops.
Eight years ago, Afghans pinned their hopes on the international community, which was seen as committed to building up the Afghan state. But observers are now watching with a skeptical eye as Karzai attempts to move forward while burdened by rocky relations with the United States and its Western allies.

The relationship hit rock-bottom this summer as Karzai distanced himself from the United States while suggesting that U.S. officials were conspiring to oust him from power, while the new administration in Washington made clear its own discontent with Karzai, who was held up as a key ally of the Bush administration.

In his first press conference since being declared the winner, Karzai on November 3 seemed to be well aware of the domestic and foreign policy challenges he faces.

Reaching Out To All Afghans

Flanked by his elected vice presidents, Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalili, Karzai told journalists that he would form a government that would include all Afghans.

"My government will be a mirror of Afghanistan. A mirror where all the people of Afghanistan can see themselves," he said.

"A mirror where effectiveness and dedication to serve the people will be clearly reflected. So I am declaring today that I hope nobody sees themselves as excluded from my government, and nobody is seen as isolated from the political system of Afghanistan."

Karzai also pledged to eradicate "the stain" of corruption in Afghanistan, but was sketchy on how he might do so. "These problems cannot be solved by changing high-ranking officials," he said. "We'll review the laws and see what problems are in the law and we will draft some new laws."

Karzai also extended an olive branch to the Taliban, calling on them to "come home and embrace their land." Analysts say that reconciling with the Taliban insurgents who now control large swathes of the country poses a much greater challenge than the one Karzai faces in reaching out to his political opposition, particularly election rival Abdullah Abdullah.

Ali Ahmed Jalali, a former interior minister in Karzai's cabinet and currently a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, says that despite Karzai's electoral alliances with warlords and regional strongmen, the president recently personally assured him that "he is going to reach out to all relevant Afghans who can make a difference."

"Well, he is a peacemaker and that's his strength. And also he is able to reach out to different centers of power in Kabul -- in Afghanistan actually," Jalali says. "But at the same time he has also been unsuccessful in building a credible team that can help him, [and not] just praise him."

Repairing U.S. Relationship

Considering his heavy reliance on Western troops and finances for his political survival, Karzai has little option other than to repair his relationship with Washington and other powers centers in the West. And this task stands to be further complicated by Afghanistan's downward spiral, which is fuelling heated debates within Western governments about future aid and military commitments to Kabul.

Karzai (right) is rumored to have a tense relationship with special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke.
On November 2, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama tempered his congratulations to Karzai by urging his Afghan counterpart to act to stem rampant corruption.

Marvin Weinbaum, a veteran regional expert and currently a specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says that Washington has accepted that it must work with Karzai.

"The feeling in Washington now is that we got to move on from here," he says. "And the best we can hope for is that we can convince Karzai that he is got to be able to lay out an agenda which is going to find legitimacy."

Weinbaum says that the Obama administration would like to see Karzai staff his administration with competent Afghans, address corruption, and to focus on constitutional changes that can placate his opponents and "avoid destructive opposition."

During the election campaign, Abdullah called for changing the current presidential form of government into a parliamentary one, with an elected prime minister, and to have a system in which local officials are elected instead of presidentially appointed.

Weinbaum suggests that while Karzai has often been blamed unjustly for everything that has gone wrong in Afghanistan, he must to move quickly to restore his credibility.

"So much of the criticism has been leveled on his administration for being weak, for being ineffectual, for being corrupt," he says

"And he has to address those three charges if he is going to convince anyone that they should look at the next five years as somehow different than the previous five yeas. That's the heart of what he is faced with now."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.