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Nov 2, 2009

Q+A-Karzai faces wall of U.S. pressure to govern better

WASHINGTON, Nov 2 (Reuters) – Re-elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai will confront a wall of pressure from the Obama administration in his next term if he wants to sustain U.S. support.

Karzai’s victory was expected but the way it unfolded and questions over his credibility undermine President Barack Obama’s ability to sell his strategy overhaul for the war in Afghanistan to an increasingly skeptical U.S. public.

Afghan election officials declared Karzai president for another five-year term after scrapping an election run-off following the withdrawal of his only rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who doubted the credibility of the election process.

Experts say what counts from now on is how Karzai chooses to govern and if he shows willingness to tackle corruption and deliver services to a population embittered by eight years of war and doubtful of their leader’s capacity.

If Karzai fails to perform, the repercussions will be felt not only domestically but also in the United States, where questions will mount over the logic of devoting scarce U.S. resources to propping up a government elected on a tide of fraud and vote-rigging.


U.S. officials have said repeatedly the election cycle should be allowed to run its course but privately many are relieved that Abdullah pulled out and a second round was avoided.

There were fears of more violence in the second round and that the Nov. 7 run-off could have been more fraudulent than the August election, further tainting Karzai’s rule. The downside is that Karzai has less legitimacy than before.

Afghanistan expert Daniel Markey said what happened was one of the worst possible outcomes for the United States. "Karzai is back in power but is in a weaker position," said Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon said at least the "train wreck" of a second round was avoided and the pressure was now on Karzai to prove the critics wrong.


The Obama administration has delivered a firm message to Karzai that he needs to tackle corruption.

Several experts said Karzai must stake out his intentions early on and offer a blueprint for how he will punish those who sustain a culture of corruption, possibly including the appointment of inspector-generals in key ministries.

One question is whether Karzai will fill key cabinet posts like interior, finance and defense with cronies who want to be rewarded for their efforts to get him re-elected.

While pledging to cooperate with Karzai, U.S. officials say they will also work around him if needed and target officials and local leaders with a track record of better governance.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday she hoped Abdullah would remain "engaged" in the political process in Afghanistan. Some have suggested Abdullah be given a central role in government but others doubt he would want it.


John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, said the scrapping of the run-off removed the "pretext for delaying the decision on giving General (Stanley) McChrystal the resources he needs to achieve our goals in Afghanistan."

Obama could make his announcement before leaving for a trip to Asia on Nov. 11 but officials and diplomats say it is possible he could wait until after his return on Nov. 20. "It’s really anybody’s guess," said one diplomatic source.


Obama has been presented with a multitude of options, from sending in an additional 10,000-15,000 troops to deploying anything up to 80,000 more.

With the legitimacy of Karzai’s government in question, there might be an argument for Obama to decide on the lower end of troop recommendations and adopt a phased approach.

For example, Obama may want to wait to see who is put in the key ministries before dedicating more U.S. forces. By offering the carrot of more resources for better governance, the United States would also retain more leverage over Karzai.


Whatever Obama decides, he faces pressure from his own Democratic Party and the Republicans. The left-wing of his party will question why U.S. resources are being used to bolster a government whose credibility is dubious, fueling calls for a withdrawal timetable.

Among many Republicans, there will be a call to boost U.S. efforts to prevent another attack akin to Sept. 11, 2001, with accusations that Obama, who took office in January, is soft on security.

All of this takes place against a backdrop of flagging public support for the war and fears that a Vietnam-style quagmire in Afghanistan will have an impact on mid-term congressional elections next November.

The worst-case scenario would be if Karzai continued the same style of governance and made little or no effort to stamp out corruption.

"Then we will be seen as propping up an illegitimate government and that will not be tolerated," said Karin von Hippel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Editing by Simon Denyer and John O’Callaghan)

Nov 1, 2009

U.S. looks to work with, and around, Karzai

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will exert firm pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to govern better in a second term but also plans to seek out ministers and other officials with a record of tackling corruption, said U.S. officials and diplomats.

Karzai is set for another term after key rival Abdullah Abdullah pulled out on Sunday from the November 7 run-off, saying his demands had not been met for a fair vote, and casting a pall over the legitimacy of the next government.

Oct 28, 2009

White House says attackers in Kabul will not win

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States vowed on Wednesday it would not be intimidated after an attack on a U.N. guest house in Kabul, as the Obama administration dodged reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother was being paid by the CIA.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned the attack in which one American was among five U.N. staff killed, saying it was an attempt to disrupt Afghanistan’s November 7 presidential run-off election and “will not succeed.”

Oct 27, 2009
via Tales from the Trail

Protest resignation over Afghan plans puts Obama team on edge


On Monday, the State Department sent out its no. 2 official to tout how it was managing to get U.S. civilians out into the field in Afghanistan, with nearly 1,000 expected to be in place by year-end.A day later, it was in damage control mode after the resignation of one of its star employees was plastered on the front page of The Washington Post and on the Internet.In an emotionally-charged four-page letter dated September 10, Matthew Hoh said he was quitting because he had lost confidence in the war effort and whether it was worth the blood spilled there.Hoh’s letter is notable  because he was seen as just the kind of person the State Department wants in Afghanistan. A former Marine and then Department of Defense civilian, he served in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. On a one-year contract with the State Department, he was serving as the senior civilian representative in Afghanistan’s Zabul province.Just as President Barack Obama is reviewing his approach in Afghanistan, Hoh said he had “doubts and reservations” not only about the current but also future strategy in the eight-year war.”I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war,” said Hoh in his resignation letter to the State Department’s human resources director.In language that must make the State Department cringe, Hoh said the United States was no more than a “supporting actor” in a tragedy and that the U.S. presence had only served to further destabilize the country as well as its neighbor Pakistan. “I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan,” he said.Excusing the “tone” of his letter, he argued that the United States was mortgaging its economy on a war which would drag on for years.State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Hoh had been a “valued member” of the team in Afghanistan and that the department respected his opinion.”We take his opinion seriously but we continue to believe that we are on track to achieve the goals that have been laid out for us. Those are to improve Afghan governance and provide security for the people of Afghanistan and help to rebuild their country and have a future which presents an alternative to the negative vision of the Taliban,” said Kelly.The White House was noncommittal in its response to the letter. “I think the president has seen the story. I don’t believe the president has seen the letter,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.State Department officials said there had been a lot of arm-twisting to try and get Hoh to stay and that the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had also appealed to him not to quit.Asked whether there could now be a rush of other resignations — as happened during the Iraq war when disaffected State Department officials quit in protest of U.S. strategy — U.S. officials said they did not think that would happen.”There is a tendency to conflate this with the resignations during the Iraq invasion, but this is really not the case. Not to diminish this guy’s views, but…I don’t sense a groundswell of resignations. The response to serve in Afghanistan is so much bigger than it was in Iraq,” said one official.This was certainly the message from Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew on Monday who said there were more applications than jobs for posts in Afghanistan.Well now there is an opening in Zabul province to fill….UPDATE: A State Department official called to make clear that Hoh was not a career foreign service officer, but was on a limited contract for the department when he resigned.Photo credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic (Afghan policeman patrols village in Zabul province in 2008), Reuters/Jim Young (State Department building in Washington)

Oct 23, 2009

U.S. expects smoother November 7 election in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States expects fewer irregularities in Afghanistan’s run-off election and looks forward to working with President Hamid Karzai if he wins, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan said on Friday.

Richard Holbrooke told reporters he anticipated the November 7 poll would run more smoothly than the August presidential election in Afghanistan that was plagued by fraud and vote-rigging.

Oct 20, 2009

U.S. presses Karzai over election outcome

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With a run-off looming in the disputed Afghan poll, U.S. officials are pressing President Hamid Karzai to accept whatever outcome emerges — either agree to a second round soon or cut a power-sharing deal.

While conceding there are no “best outcomes” from the fraud-marred August election, a senior U.S. official said the over-riding message to Karzai was that for his country to succeed there must be a legitimate Afghan government.

Oct 16, 2009

Pakistan, U.S. officials to hammer out energy ideas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senior U.S. officials travel to Pakistan next week to hammer out strategies to tackle the country’s chronic electricity crisis and find ways to lure foreign investment into the crumbling sector.

But U.S. officials and experts said there could be no “quick fix” to resolving the power shortages, a problem that is a hot-button political issue in Pakistan and is seen by economists as undermining growth potential in the country.

Oct 13, 2009

U.S. seeks to calm Pakistani fears over aid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers and the Obama administration sought on Tuesday to allay concerns in Pakistan over conditions linked to billions of dollars in U.S. aid but made clear the legislation would not be changed.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was in Washington last week applauding the $7.5 billion aid plan, was back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after his country’s military protested against the bill. It ties some funds to fighting militants and is seen by critics as violating sovereignty.

Oct 13, 2009

Pakistan’s foreign minister pushes US on aid plan

WASHINGTON, Oct 13 (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers and the Obama administration sought on Tuesday to allay Pakistani concerns over conditions tied to billions in non-military U.S. aid to Pakistan, but made clear the legislation would not be changed.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who was in Washington last week applauding the $7.5 billion aid plan, was back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after his country’s military protested the bill, which links some funds to fighting terrorism and is seen by critics as violating sovereignty.

Qureshi’s return underscores mistrust over U.S. intentions in Pakistan and the rift between the fragile civilian government and the country’s military leadership, who have ruled the nation for more than half of its 62-year history.

Lawmakers, while sympathetic to delicate Pakistani politics, made clear conditions attached to the aid, which still has to be appropriated by Congress, could not be eased.

But Senator John Kerry, one of the authors of the bill, said an attempt would be made in the next 24 hours to clarify in writing some of the terms of the legislation that he said had not been characterized accurately "in some quarters."

"The bill doesn’t have to be changed," Kerry said after meeting Qureshi. "If there is a misinterpretation, it simply has to be clarified."

The bill, which Kerry said was aimed as a "true sign of friendship" for Pakistan, provides for $1.5 billion in non-military aid over the next five years.

Reiterating the bill did not impinge on Pakistani sovereignty, Kerry said he was confident "we will not only be able to adequately address the concerns that have been raised in Pakistan, but we will provide a clarity that has force of law."


Qureshi said he had conveyed to Kerry the sovereignty worries raised in Pakistan’s parliament and said these fears needed to be addressed.

"We are going to work on it collectively to give it the correct interpretation," Qureshi said.

In the House of Representatives, a spokesman for one of the appropriations subcommittees made clear the aid would be subject to annual review.

"The amount and type of assistance Pakistan receives will continue to be determined on a yearly basis by the performance of the Pakistanis in fighting al Qaeda, strict accountability of funding, and the fiscal realities facing our nation," said Matt Dennis, a spokeswoman for Rep. Nita Lowey, chair of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations subcommittee.

Before going to Capitol Hill, Qureshi met special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who had pushed Congress to pass the legislation. Qureshi was later set to meet national security advisor James Jones.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. president saw the legislation as an important step forward and planned to sign the bill into law "soon." He did not specify when.

"I think the opponents of this bill … are misinformed or are characterizing this in a different way for their own political purposes," Gibbs told reporters.

The United States is Pakistan’s biggest aid donor and needs nuclear-armed Pakistan’s help in hunting al Qaeda leaders and stopping Islamist militants crossing the border into Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces there.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin said tensions over the aid package underlined the "trust deficit" that existed between the two countries. She said there needed to be strong diplomatic efforts to resolve this.

Pakistan expert Alex Thier said just as in the United States, Pakistan’s political leaders needed to balance their need for U.S. economic support with popular backing.

"This looks very dangerous, not only to the military, but also expands this narrative that the U.S. is trying to micromanage Pakistani security," said Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace. (additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle)

    • About Sue

      "Sue Pleming covers foreign policy, with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. She joined Reuters in London in 1990 and was based in Brussels before moving to Washington, where her most recent post was covering the State Department. She started her journalism career in southern Africa and has also done reporting stints in Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi."
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