U.S. aims to hold Afghanistan’s Karzai to his pledges of reform

The United States is developing a set of benchmarks to ensure that Afghan President Hamid Karzai keeps a promise delivered at his inauguration to fight corruption and inefficiency, U.S. officials said.

Taking the oath of office Thursday, Karzai, whose reputation has been battered by corruption allegations against close associates, pledged to fire any official connected to drug trafficking and “end the culture of impunity and violation of the law.”

To hold him to his word, the Obama administration is instituting a “monitoring and verification” system to judge whether the central government’s ministries and agencies are worthy of receiving direct U.S. aid. If the organizations don’t measure up, they won’t receive any U.S. money, administration officials said.

The Afghan leader also set an implicit timeline for a massive drawdown of the more than 110,000 foreign troops in his country, saying he wanted Afghanistan to be able to handle its own security by the time he leaves office in 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to the Afghan capital of Kabul for the inauguration, one of hundreds of dignitaries at the swearing-in. Her trip apparently was meant to both support and admonish Karzai at a time when the Obama administration is not only formulating its overall war strategy but carefully calibrating its dealings with the sometimes-unpredictable 51-year-old leader.

Clinton praised Karzai’s plans to fight corruption as “visionary” but said attention now turns to his actions.

“Today’s inauguration opens a real window of opportunity between the Afghan government and its people and for a new chapter in the partnership between Afghanistan and the international community,” she told reporters. But she also emphasized that U.S. officials, like the people of Afghanistan, would “watch very carefully to see how that’s implemented.”

President Obama is nearing a decision on whether to expand the U.S. force in Afghanistan, which now stands at 68,000 troops. As part of a push to make Karzai’s second term cleaner and more effective, U.S. officials are preparing a series of benchmarks to judge progress on upgrading government services, improving security, reducing corruption and training Afghan army and national police units.

U.S. officials will pay particular attention to the use of U.S. aid, which has totaled $40 billion since 2001.

Clinton said in an interview with the BBC that American officials monitoring U.S. aid would undertake a “very rigorous analysis of who we can really count on to spend that money the way we intend it to be spent.”

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged limits on the administration’s leverage, because the United States is pursuing its own security goals in Afghanistan. But he said U.S. officials could deny aid to individual agencies and top officials, and they have leeway to channel it instead to provincial and local governments.

Karzai, by saying he wanted Afghanistan to handle its own security by the end of his new term, in part intended to convince Afghans that foreign troops would not be in their country forever.

But the U.S. official acknowledged that it would be difficult for the country’s small and strained military to stand on its own by 2014. “It is quite ambitious,” the official said.

Although Karzai returned to office in the wake of a fraud-marred election, Thursday’s inauguration bore all the trappings of grandeur that this poverty-stricken nation could muster. Wearing his familiar brightly striped silk cape, he trod a red carpet as a white-gloved honor guard saluted and a brass band played a slightly off-key version of Afghanistan’s national anthem. Security in Kabul was extremely tight.

It took almost three months of wrangling over the result of the balloting to formally return the president to office, and the fight was clearly a bruising one.

In his speech, Karzai reached out to his chief election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, but stopped short of offering him a place in the new administration. Abdullah, Karzai’s former foreign minister -- who did not attend Thursday’s event -- dropped out of a scheduled runoff vote this month, declaring that the contest would not be fair. “We must learn from our good and bad experiences in these elections,” Karzai said, calling Abdullah a “brother” and urging him and other rivals to “come together.”

The day brought clear reminders of the continuing threat from a revitalized insurgency that has held U.S. and allied forces at bay for eight years. Two more American troops were killed in an explosion in the southern province of Zabol, military officials said, and 10 civilians died in a suicide bombing in Oruzgan province, also in the violent south. And today, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed at least 13 people, including a policeman, and wounded scores in a crowded area of Farah City in southwest Afghanistan.

In his speech, Karzai touched on issues that have become sore points with Afghans: civilian casualties at the hands of foreign troops and the presence of private foreign security firms that operate as a quasi-military force.

Lowering the number of Afghan civilian deaths has been a key goal of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took over command of American and NATO forces five months ago.

“I am pleased to see . . . a considerable reduction in the number of civilian casualties,” Karzai said. “We would like to expand and enhance such measures.”

At the same time, he served notice that foreign security contractors had largely worn out their welcome, even though they have been responsible over the years for guarding many senior Afghan officials, himself included.

“Within the next two years, we want operations by all private . . . security firms to be ended, and their duties delegated to Afghan security entities,” Karzai said.

Amid a subdued mood in the capital, some Afghans mustered a measure of hope. “We’ve suffered a lot,” said Ali Ahmad, a 55-year-old unemployed father of five. “I pray to God to give him the ability to bring a good government, so our children can have a better life.”

Although he fought hard to stay in power, Karzai has at times betrayed a weariness with the weight of office. The inaugural ceremony brought one such telling moment.

Toward the end, the president’s speech was interrupted momentarily by the late arrival of the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, who looked mortified as he searched for a place to sit. Karzai gestured at his own empty chair.

“Take my place, please,” he said. “You can even sit there permanently.”