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U.S. Presses Karzai To Reach New Deal With Allies

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under pressure to devolve power to regional governors.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States and its allies are pressing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a pact that includes an anticorruption commission, merit-based appointments, and gives more authority to local leaders, U.S. officials have said.

The proposed deal could help President Barack Obama make the case for a counterinsurgency strategy that hinges in large part on success winning Afghan public support for Karzai's government as an alternative to the Taliban.

U.S. officials see improved governance as critical to resuscitating the standing of the reelected president, who emerged this week as the victor after a fraud-marred election stoked serious questions about his legitimacy both at home and abroad.

One Western source briefed on the Kabul discussions said the compact could amount to a "crutch" for some skeptical U.S. lawmakers to back whatever troop increase Obama settles on.

The leading options under consideration by the White House would add at least 10,000 to 15,000 troops, up to as many as 40,000, officials said.

Outlining elements of the plan, a senior U.S. official said the allies wanted Karzai to make merit-based appointments in key ministries and not to reward cronies who had supported him in the election.

Karzai was also being asked to establish an anticorruption commission that would investigate top officials. There is also a provision that would give greater authority to local and provincial leaders in Afghanistan in choosing and overseeing projects in their areas, autonomy that Karzai has previously balked at.

Moderate Taliban

The West was also seeking progress early on in "reintegrating" moderate members of the Taliban, for which the United States has included funding.

"This means articulating a vision or something that will make these insurgents put their arms down. That is something that clearly has to be done," said the senior official.

Another element being discussed is the need for a "sustained economic policy" in Afghanistan that encourages private-sector-led growth and steadily increases revenue collection, the official said.

"In turn, the international community will work to help develop Afghan capacity and send more development assistance to the government," said the senior U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions.

U.S. officials sought to play down any direct link between the proposed compact with Karzai to fight corruption and Obama's decision-making on troops.

Obama delivered a strong anticorruption message to Karzai this week, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on November 3 that Obama, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, and the State Department were "actively engaged" with Karzai's government about establishing a compact to crack down on corruption.

"There have to be deliverables to this," Gibbs said, though he declined to provide any specifics.

A European diplomat said the U.S. and British ambassadors in Kabul were leading talks in Kabul, but that nothing had been written up yet and the term "compact" would likely not be used to describe the new arrangement.

"It is a work in progress," said the diplomat.

The hope is that Karzai will sign onto a deal and then announce it in a televised address to the Afghan population, making it harder for him to renege on public promises.

In September, the leaders of France, Britain, and Germany wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposing a conference of major donors once a new Afghan government was formed and any new agreement could be publicly launched then.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on November 3 in an address to the U.S. Congress that she expected a UN conference early next year, but did not say where.

The international community agreed on an international "compact" with Afghanistan at a conference in London early in 2006, many of whose goals are still unfulfilled.

That deal also called for "good governance" and outlined commitments on both sides, from electricity to rule of law and human rights as well as security.