WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has been quietly working with U.S. allies and Afghan officials on a package of reforms and anti-corruption measures that it hopes will boost popular support for President Hamid Karzai and erase the doubts about his legitimacy raised by his fraud-marred re-election.
The success of the so-called "Afghanistan Compact" will hinge on Karzai's willingness to take bold actions such as cracking down on official corruption, replacing ineffective ministers and surrendering some power to local authorities, which in the past he's resisted or failed to undertake.
"As long as the population views its government as weak or predatory, the Taliban's 'alternative' style of delivering security and some form of justice will continue to have traction," says a U.S. government document that outlines part of the proposed Compact and was obtained by McClatchy.
"We would have to see some really concrete actions on the part of Karzai to be able to take this seriously," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst, now at the Middle East Institute. "It looks great on paper."
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Bolstering the credibility of Karzai's government is essential to the Obama administration's efforts to curb the worsening Taliban-led insurgency amid growing casualties and shrinking public support for a war that entered its ninth year last month.
The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has requested as many as 80,000 additional U.S. troops as part of an ambitious counter-insurgency plan to strengthen the Afghan government and expand its security forces.
"Increasing our military footprint will exacerbate the perception among Afghans that the U.S. intends to occupy their country in support of a government many see as illegitimate," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
A previous Afghanistan Compact, concluded in February 2006 between Karzai and international backers, promised to boost security, root out corruption, improve governance and expand economic development. It remains largely unfulfilled.
A U.S. defense official was skeptical of the new plan, saying he didn't think that Karzai would fulfill the Compact, which he said "isn't worth the paper it's written on."
However, James Dobbins, the first U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, called Karzai a "pretty good politician" who's shouldering an unfair portion of the blame for the Afghan crisis, enjoys more support than is widely appreciated and understands the need for change.
"There has been a respectable (economic) growth rate since Karzai took over so the life of the average Afghan has improved substantially," said Dobbins, of the RAND Corp., a policy research organization. "The problem is that this is not widely distributed and not felt in the rural and contested areas."
Karzai, who was declared re-elected Monday after his main rival and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, decided to drop out of a Nov. 7 runoff, was expected to publicly embrace the new Afghanistan Compact at the start of his new term.
The Obama administration has been developing the Compact for months in coordination with U.S. allies and Karzai's government. It's tried to keep the effort quiet so it could be presented as an Afghan initiative, according to several U.S. and European officials and the U.S. government document. "Afghans must lead," the document says.
The document outlines proposals for ceding greater power to authorities who run Afghanistan's 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts, including providing them with more development funds and the ability to direct them to projects that they think are most needed.
U.S. officials said Karzai also would be expected to implement new efforts to crack down on rampant corruption fueled by the country's production of opium, which is used to produce heroin, and to replace ineffective ministers with technocrats. Ministries that fail to improve could see international funds cut, they said.
President Barack Obama appeared to be referring to the new plan when he told reporters at the White House Monday that he'd impressed on Karzai during a telephone call to congratulate him on his re-election that he was expected to move forcefully against corruption and to enact reforms.
"I did emphasize to President Karzai that the American people and the international community as a whole want to continue to partner with him and his government," said Obama. "But I emphasized that this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter based on improved governance, a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption, joint efforts to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces so that the Afghan people can provide for their own security."
"He assured me that he understood the importance of this moment. But, as I indicated to him, the proof is not going to be in words, it's going to be in deeds," said Obama, who called Karzai's re-election "messy."
Karzai's first five-year term was marred by the growing Taliban-led insurgency, narcotics trafficking-fueled corruption, nepotism, a lack of skilled bureaucrats and problems delivering critical services to some of the world's poorest people.
Washington and its allies are anxious to repair the damage caused by fraudulent voting, mostly on Karzai's behalf, in the Aug. 20 first round of the election and the Abdullah's decision to withdraw from the race because of concerns about malfeasance in the planned Nov. 7 second round.
The administration, other powers that contribute to the 100,000-strong U.S.-led international force and the United Nations wasted no time Monday in launching an effort to refurbish Karzai's fraud-tainted image after election officials declared him re-elected.
"President Karzai has been declared the winner of the Afghan election and will head the next government of Afghanistan. So obviously he's the legitimate leader of the country," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
However, other U.S. officials Monday expressed skepticism that Karzai can regain the trust of his people.
"And without some ambitious efforts to root out corruption, the odds that the average Afghan will see much improvement in his life are less than (zero), and so are the odds that Congress will keep throwing money at Afghanistan in an election year," said a U.S. military official, referring to the 2010 House of Representatives and Senate races.
A U.S. intelligence official also said he was skeptical because the compact would require Karzai to break deals he made with warlords and power barons who oversaw ballot box-stuffing on his behalf.
"Karzai won't do the things it says he'll do — in fact, he can't do some of them without getting killed — and we have no way to enforce it. Do we threaten to cut off aid if he doesn't give Parliament or the provincial governors a bigger role? Threaten to withdraw troops? Arrest his brother down in Kandahar for drug-trafficking?" said the U.S. intelligence official.
Weinbaum said the administration has no choice but to try to repair a relationship with Karzai that's been strained by criticism of his leadership and intense pressure the United States brought to bear on the Afghan leader to agree to the second round after a U.N.-backed audit found that tens of thousands of his first-round votes were fraudulent.
"They are doing the best they can with a bad situation," he said. "They've got to create legitimacy after the fact."
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