President Hamid Karzai was sworn in today for a second five-year term as Afghanistan’s president, assuming leadership of a war-battered nation and a government that the West is demanding be cleansed of corruption.
The ceremony took place in a soaring, white-columned chamber in the fortress-like presidential palace, before an audience of Afghan and foreign dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clad in his trademark multicolored cape and lamb’s-wool hat, Karzai strode into the palace, greeted by a military guard standing at smart attention. He waved and saluted, to the strains of a slightly out-of-tune brass band.
The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Abdul Salam Azimi. Standing at a flower-bedecked podium, Karzai was solemn-faced as he intoned, “I swear . . . to uphold the constitution of the country and protect the people of Afghanistan.”
For many Afghans, though, the spectacle underlined an acute sense of disillusionment with their leader.
Mahmood Barakzai still remembers the rush of pride and optimism he felt when Karzai was sworn in for his first term. This time around, the Kabul shopkeeper wasn’t even going to bother switching on the television.
“Here in our country, everything has become more sad, more uncertain and more dangerous,” Barakzai said, shaking his head as he wrapped his hands around a cup of hot sweet tea, trying to ward off a penetrating early-winter chill.
On the eve of Karzai’s inauguration, the mood in Afghanistan’s capital could hardly have been less celebratory. Fearing violence, most people hurried home early from work or school Wednesday. Traffic rapidly thinned as police set up a maze of checkpoints around the capital before nightfall, blocking off streets near government buildings, embassies and other sensitive installations. Even the beggars retreated into doorways and alleys.
A national holiday was declared for today, perhaps less out of a sense of a festive event to be marked than a wish to keep people off the streets in case of an attack by insurgents.
Kabul’s expatriate community also was hunkered down. Most workers with aid organizations or foreign companies were under total “lockdown” for inauguration day. After a lethal attack last month on a guesthouse used by United Nations workers in the capital, the world body relocated hundreds of foreign staffers and placed others under tight restrictions.
Even the nature of the swearing-in seemed emblematic of what many regard as an isolated and embattled presidency. With Karzai’s heavily fortified palace as a venue, the audience was made up of handpicked guests. The president rarely appears in public these days, and with suicide bombings a regular feature of life here, most large gatherings are considered far too dangerous.
Dozens of foreign dignitaries were on hand for the inauguration, but the makeup of some of the delegations yielded signs of the chilliness of Karzai’s relationship with the West. The United States was represented at the last swearing-in by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. This time, Clinton was the highest-ranking American official in attendance. She landed in Kabul late Wednesday, her visit not announced in advance because of security concerns.
Profound misgivings about Karzai, voiced by Clinton and others, have been a prominent feature of deliberations in Washington over the American posture toward the new Afghan government.
Many senior figures in the Obama administration regard the Afghan leader as an increasingly shaky ally, a view that has colored the debate over whether to commit tens of thousands more American troops to the conflict.
Diplomats say there are two schools of thought on the new Afghan administration, one being that the international community is stuck with Karzai and must find a way to work with him, and the other holding that there are ways to circumvent him if he fails to address the corruption and inefficiency that marked his first term.
Karzai takes office under the cloud of an election marked by massive fraud. It was hardly the mandate the West had wished for the new government.
Among Afghans, weariness and pessimism are commonly sounded themes as the war slogs into its ninth year. Western troops have died in record numbers this year, and in large swaths of countryside, the coalition’s military superiority over the Taliban has failed to translate into a sense of safety in everyday life.
Karzai has pledged to appoint qualified people to his Cabinet, a process that may not be completed until next month. Western diplomats say he has been warned against filling senior posts with those tainted by offenses such as bribery, human rights violations or involvement in the narcotics trade.
Some Afghans, though, voiced hope that during a second term -- constitutionally, his last -- Karzai might turn an eye to his legacy.
“We’ll see what happens,” said Khalid Mehran, a 21-year-old tailor. “This is his last opportunity to change.”