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Obama Vows Afghan Exit, Clinton Prods Karzai

KABUL (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama pledged today to end the Afghan war before he leaves office, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Hamid Karzai to make a new compact with his people on the eve of his inauguration.

Clinton made her first visit as secretary of state to attend the swearing-in of Karzai, the veteran leader who takes office on November 19 for a second full term as president with his reputation in tatters after an election marred by fraud.

The capital was already under heavy security a day ahead of the ceremony, with roads sealed off by Afghan troops. The government has declared November 19 a holiday and advised citizens to stay off the streets.

Western officials hope Karzai will use his keynote speech at the inauguration to outline reforms that will help restore his credibility both in Afghanistan and abroad.

"There is now a clear window of opportunity for President Karzai and his government to make a new compact with the people of Afghanistan, to demonstrate clearly that you're going to have accountability and tangible results that will improve the lives of the people," Clinton told staff at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Her visit was the most senior by a member of the Obama administration, which has so far kept Karzai at arm's length.

She met General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, whose request for tens of thousands of extra troops Obama is still considering. She was due to have dinner with Karzai at his sprawling palace later today.

In an interview with CNN, Obama said he would announce the results of his long-awaited review soon. It would include an exit strategy to avoid "a multi-year occupation that won't serve the interests of the United States," he said.

"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 addition to Clinton, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will be among about 300 other foreign dignitaries at the swearing-in.

The centrepiece 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.

Fake Votes

A UN-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. In the CNN interview, he 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.

"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 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 an escalation of the war. There are now nearly 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans, more than half arriving this year.

McChrystal has warned that without new tactics requiring tens of thousands more troops, 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.