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Nov 30, 2009

Q+A: Obama ponders extra troops for Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama says he will “finish the job” in Afghanistan, a signal he is likely to announce next week that he is sending tens of thousands of extra troops. The announcement should mostly fulfill a request by his commander, General Stanley McChrystal, who says the extra forces are needed to carry out a new strategy to defeat the Taliban.

Here are some questions and answers about the new deployment:

HOW MANY WILL THERE BE?

Nearly 110,000 international troops are already in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans. More than half of the Americans have arrived since Obama took office — some ordered to go in the last months of the Bush administration, others by Obama himself. Obama is expected to send between 30,000 and 40,000 extra troops, taking the total number close to 150,000, nearly as many as were in Iraq during the “surge” there from 2007-2008.

Nov 22, 2009

Militants could be invited to Afghan “Jirga”

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai could invite militants to attend a “Loya Jirga,” or grand council meeting, aiming to seek peace and reconciliation with the Taliban, a spokesman said on Sunday.

The plans signal a more public effort to engage with militants during Karzai’s second term as leader, measures that Washington has encouraged in its counter-insurgency strategy.

Nov 21, 2009
via Afghan Journal

Will voters in your town believe Karzai is worth dying for?

Photo

In his inauguration speech on Thursday, Afghan president Hamid Karzai promised to combat corruption and appoint competent ministers, heading off the growing chorus of criticism from the West that his government is crooked and inept. Unsurprisingly, the Western dignitaries in the audience declared that they liked what they heard.We predicted ahead of time that we would hear positive words about Karzai this week. After all, Western governments need to convince their own voters back home that the veteran Afghan leader’s government is worth sending their sons and daughters to die for. This autumn’s election debacle made Karzai look bad – a U.N.-backed probe found that nearly a third of votes cast for him were fake — but now that’s all over and the West needs him to look as reliable as possible.A “very strong, substantial statement,” declared British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.”An important new starting point” that “set forth an agenda for change and reform” gushed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.“Let’s encourage and support the president,” said EU envoy Ettore Sequi.Well, that’s what they said when the cameras were rolling. Behind the scenes the message was: Karzai’s speech was fine, but it’s just a speech.“We’ve heard all of these sentiments before. If you compare his last inauguration to this inauguration, you’ll see there’s almost a 90 percent overlap,” was how one Western official in Kabul put it.President Barack Obama, who is still considering whether to send tens of thousands of extra troops to join the 68,000 Americans and 40,000 NATO allies in Afghanistan, has a hard sell to his own Democratic party. If the inauguration means it is now time to be nice to Karzai, nobody told Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives. She let Karzai have it with both barrels.“The president of Afghanistan has proven to be an unworthy partner,” she told NPR’s Morning Edition. “How can we ask the American people to pay a big price in lives and limbs and also in dollars if we don’t have a connection to reliable partner?”[Above: Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai inspects the guard of honour on his arrival at the presidential palace for his inauguration in Kabul November 19, 2009. REUTERS/Jerry Lampen]

Nov 20, 2009

Karzai sworn in as Afghan leader; vows to fight graft

KABUL (Reuters) – Veteran Afghan leader Hamid Karzai was sworn in as president on Thursday, pledging to fight graft and take control of his country’s security before his five-year term ends, after a fraud-marred election left his image in ruins.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari were among dignitaries attending the ceremony in an ornate hall in Karzai’s sprawling Kabul palace.

Nov 18, 2009

Obama vows Afghan exit; Clinton prods Karzai

KABUL, Nov 18 (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama pledged on Wednesday 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 Thursday 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 Thursday 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 on Wednesday.

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 programme 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 U.N.-backed probe concluded nearly a third of votes for Karzai in the Aug. 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 Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. He won a full term in the country’s first democratic presidential election in 2004.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in KABUL, Sue Pleming and JoAnne Allen in WASHINGTON and Caren Bohan in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait)

Nov 18, 2009

Afghan leader to take oath, reputation in tatters

KABUL, Nov 18 (Reuters) – Foreign dignitaries were to begin descending on Kabul on Wednesday, the eve of the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai, who is struggling to rehabilitate his tattered reputation in the West after a fraud-marred election.

Afghanistan’s foreign ministry says 300 international dignitaries will attend Thursday’s oath-taking ceremony at the sprawling presidential palace in Kabul, including 30 presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers.

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have confirmed they will attend Karzai’s swearing-in.

Other countries, including the United States, have not announced in advance who will attend for security reasons.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is in the final stages of deciding whether to send tens of thousands of extra troops, a decision that could come soon after the inauguration brings the tumultuous three-month election process to a close.

The Taliban insurgency has never been deadlier during Karzai’s 8-year rule, the Western force protecting him has never been larger, and his own reputation has never been weaker, wrecked by election fraud, corruption and weak government.

Security for the ceremony in Kabul will be extreme, with reporters barred from attending the inauguration itself.

The centrepiece of the ceremony will be Karzai’s inauguration speech, with Western officials hoping that the veteran leader can lay out a specific programme to combat corruption, improve performance and limit the influence of former warlords.

“We would like some sort of roadmap. We want some clear direction given here,” a European diplomat said.

FAKE VOTES

The election, intended to bolster the legitimacy of the Afghan leader, had the opposite effect, driving a wedge between Karzai and the Western countries whose troops defend him.

A U.N.-backed probe concluded nearly a third of votes for Karzai in the Aug. 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.

Public support for the war has plummeted in Western countries as the insurgency spreads and death tolls soar.

Obama has already presided over a massive escalation of the war. There are now nearly 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans, more than half arriving this year.

Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has requested tens of thousands of additional troops, warning that without them, the war will probably be lost.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Tuesday found that 52 percent of Americans now believe the war is not worth fighting, although 55 percent still believe Obama will choose a strategy that will work.

Western leaders need to persuade their people that Karzai’s government can be improved and is worth fighting for.

“Now that the election is finally over, we’re looking to see tangible evidence that the government, led by the president but going all the way down to the local level, will be more responsive to the needs of the people,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC television on Sunday.

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 Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. He won a full term in the country’s first democratic presidential election in 2004.

(Editing by Paul Tait)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)

Nov 9, 2009

Barrier business booms as Afghan security worsens

KABUL (Reuters) – Three years ago, Nosair Tawakali’s uncle from a village north of Kabul looked around at the deteriorating security in the Afghan capital, saw many more foreign troops and had an idea for a business.

Barriers. Concrete blast barriers.

Tawakali and his uncle set up the Sultan Sohrab Construction Co. on a road north of the Kabul airport, making blast walls from concrete poured into moulds around steel reinforcement bars.

Oct 12, 2009

Watchdog alters Afghan recount rules

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s election watchdog changed its fraud-tallying rules for the second time in less than a week on Monday, switching back to a formula that lowers the chance of overturning President Hamid Karzai’s first-round win.

In a further sign of disarray, one of only two Afghans on the five-member Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) abruptly resigned. The member, seen by diplomats as a supporter of Karzai, said the commissioners had been subject to foreign interference.

Oct 12, 2009

Watchdog alters Afghan recount rules, member quits

KABUL, Oct 12 (Reuters) – Afghanistan’s election watchdog changed its fraud-tallying rules for the second time in less than a week on Monday, switching back to a formula that lowers the chance of overturning President Hamid Karzai’s first-round win.

In a further sign of disarray, one of only two Afghans on the five-member Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) abruptly resigned. The member, seen by diplomats as a supporter of Karzai, said the commissioners had been subject to foreign interference.

The ECC announced the change in its rules just days before it is due to present the results of its fraud probe, which will determine whether Karzai wins in the first round or needs to face his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, in a run-off.

Under the new rules the commission will not take into account which candidate it finds benefitted most from any fraud.

The change effectively reverts to initial rules announced last week, which were changed mid-week after being criticised for potentially shielding Karzai.

"It was our mistake in how we interpreted it. We thought we could get more granular, and it turns out that was not the case," the ECC’s U.N.-appointed head Grant Kippen, a Canadian, said.

In preliminary results, Karzai won 54.6 percent of the vote. In order to force a second round, the commission would have to find that fraud overwhelmingly benefitted him over other candidates, reducing his share below 50 percent.

The commission has ordered a recount of about a quarter of ballots, about 75 percent of which were cast for Karzai.

Under the new guidelines, the commission has divided the suspicious ballots into six categories based on the reason for considering them suspect, and will disqualify the same percentage of ballots for each candidate from among those in each category.

Last Wednesday the ECC said it would calculate a different fraud percentage for each candidate, so that candidates who benefitted from more fraud would face a greater penalty. That would have made it easier to conclude that Karzai’s supporters were far more culpable than his rivals and force a second round.

Under the new rules, the commission could find more than a million fake votes and Karzai would still win squeak through. Under the rules from last Wednesday, Karzai could have faced a recount with as few as 520,000 fraudulent ballots rejected.

Nevertheless, Abdullah told Reuters the commission had explained its new methodology to him, and he accepted it.

"They convinced us that statistically this is the only way," he said, adding that he still expected a second round, based on reports from his staff monitoring the recount.

RESIGNATION DAMAGES TRUST

The ECC is the final arbiter of fraud in the election, and Western governments are counting on it to come up with a result that Afghans will accept as fair, after it found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud".

Three of its five members were appointed by the United Nations, while the other two are Afghans.

In a blow for the body’s credibility, one of the Afghans, Mustafa Barakzai, said he was quitting because he believed foreigners were exerting influence over the body.

"When it was proven to me that there was interference, I decided to leave. If there was no interference (the final result) would not have been delayed," Barakzai told reporters, echoing a criticism Karzai has made that foreigners slowed the process.

Barakzai was appointed to the commission by Afghanistan’s Supreme Court. A diplomatic source said he was seen as supporter of Karzai and may have quit ahead of the announcement to avoid being associated with a ruling that would require a second round.

Kippen said: "I don’t understand what he’s referring to in terms of international interference. It’s unfortunate, we wish him well and we’ll miss his presence." (Editing by Alex Richardson) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)






Oct 7, 2009

Afghan watchdog alters vote recount after criticism

KABUL (Reuters) – The U.N.-backed watchdog overseeing a fraud investigation in Afghanistan’s August 20 vote altered its ballot-counting rules Wednesday, ditching a plan criticized for favoring President Hamid Karzai.

The new recount rules, which watchdog officials said were a “clarification,” take into account the possibility one candidate may have disproportionately benefitted from fraud, a finding that would be necessary in order for Karzai to be forced to face a second round.