Karzai welcomes Afghan drawdown plan as election woes re-emerge

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday endorsed President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by the middle of next year, though his principal political rival questioned the government's ability to follow through.

"We welcome this announcement and congratulate Afghans for taking control of their soil," Karzai said in a brief statement.

He called the announcement a "good measure" for Afghanistan and the United States. "The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan shows that Afghan forces have become stronger. People tell me they now have greater confidence in the security forces," Karzai said.

The leader of Afghanistan's opposition coalition, Abdullah Abdullah, also welcomed the drawdown announcement, but he used the opportunity to question the ability of Karzai's government to lead the nation.

"One of the main reasons for past failures is incompetent, ineffective leadership in Afghanistan that missed golden opportunities," Abdullah said. "Our fear and concern is that we might miss other opportunities in the years ahead."

Abdullah challenged Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections, and his barely veiled criticism of the president came the same day that a special tribunal set up in December ruled that 60 lawmakers who'd won seats in Afghanistan's 249-member parliament in September did so by fraud and should be disqualified.

Most of those lawmakers are Karzai opponents, and it wasn't clear who'd replace them.

More than 2,500 candidates sought seats in the Sept. 18 elections, but the allegations of fraud delayed the inauguration of the current parliament until January.

In announcing the tribunal's decision, Chairman Sediqullah Haqiq called for prosecuting election workers and officials who he said had engaged in fraud.

The tribunal's announcement seemed unlikely to end the dispute.

A spokesman for the Independent Election Commission, Tabish Forogh, said that only the election commission could decide whether the elections were fraudulent. The commission already has said the vote was valid.

"One point that I want to make is that the Independent Election Commission still stands firmly on its previous position," Forogh said.

Candidates who'd been declared losers in the election hailed the tribunal's decision.

"We proved to the world that there was fraud in the election and people's votes were stolen," said Moen Marastyal, a candidate from the northern province of Kunduz.

Marastyal said he felt that way even though the tribunal hadn't named him a winner.

Abdullah, who now leads the opposition Hope and Change coalition, denounced the tribunal.

"The creation of the tribunal was illegal, and its decision is illegal, too," Abdullah said.

Some lawmakers threatened street demonstrations if they were removed from office because of the tribunal's ruling.

"Last year's elections were fair," said Fatima Aziz, a lawmaker from Kunduz whose election was declared fraudulent Thursday. "I do not trust the court's finding, and its decision is illegal."

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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