In his first public comments since winning a second term, President Hamid Karzai struck a conciliatory note Tuesday, pledging to form an inclusive government and to tackle corruption, as advocated by the U.S. and many fellow Afghans.
But he offered no specific gestures toward his election rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Nor would he commit to measures that might help restore legitimacy to his administration after a turbulent election marred by widespread fraud.
The U.S. strategy to stabilize Afghanistan requires a credible government in Kabul that can support military operations and deliver services to help draw civilians away from an escalating Taliban insurgency.
But the decision Monday by electoral officials to declare Karzai the victor after Abdullah, citing concerns of more fraud, pulled out of a weekend election runoff, deprived the president of a genuine win at the polls. President Obama may now find it more difficult to justify major troop increases, which his commanders have recommended to bolster the war effort.
U.S. and European leaders are pressing Karzai to reach out to his rivals, including Abdullah’s camp, to help form a government that is serious about improving governance and cracking down on the corruption that has colored his administration.
“My government will be for all Afghans, and all those who want to work with me are most welcome, regardless of whether they opposed me in the election or they supported me in the election,” Karzai said in a news briefing at the heavily guarded presidential palace.
Karzai also said he would welcome Taliban militants who are ready to work with the government.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said U.S. officials were looking for Karzai “to move boldly and forcefully to initiate internal reforms, and we stand ready to assist him in that regard, to help him improve governance in Afghanistan, to provide security for the Afghan people and provide the kind of services that the people of Afghanistan deserve.”
“We want to see how the government is formed. We want to see who he’s going to have in his government,” Kelly said. “We’re looking for some strong and decisive action.”
But Karzai has obligations toward his supporters that could limit the number of top positions in his government available to the opposition.
The presence of Karzai’s two sullen running mates at his side throughout the half-hour news conference underlined the president’s troubling ties. To secure another five-year term, Karzai cut deals with regional strongmen, including Mohammed Fahim, a former warlord accused of drug trafficking and human rights abuses who will serve as first vice president in the new government. Fahim denies the allegations against him.
Although Karzai was gracious about Abdullah’s campaign, which he said was “much better” than his own, he avoided answering questions about what role his challenger might play in his administration.
“By my accounting he has promised every Cabinet post three times over,” said a Western official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Although Karzai sent “all the right signals” Tuesday, the official said, “we’ve heard the words many times before. . . . The test is over the coming days and weeks, when Karzai makes his Cabinet appointments. Then we will have a better idea about his intentions.”
Obama said Monday that Karzai had assured him in a telephone call that “he understood the importance of this moment.”
“But as I indicated to him,” Obama told reporters, “the proof is not going to be in words. It’s going to be in deeds.”
Some U.S. officials would like to see Karzai make a few high-profile arrests of corrupt officials, in hopes of helping restore public trust.
His refusal to remove the top leadership of the Independent Election Commission, whose members were appointed by Karzai, was one of the reasons given by Abdullah for his withdrawal from the race.
The Afghan president acknowledged Tuesday that “we have been tarnished with corruption” and said that “we will continue to make every possible effort to wipe away this stain.”
But, he said through a translator, “the failures in the system and the government cannot only be solved through removals. There are rules and there are regulations and there are laws that need to be reformed.”
He also promised to strengthen an anti-corruption commission established last year.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.