by Tony Cross
Article published on the 2009-11-19 Latest update 2009-11-19 15:15 TU
Hamid Karzai inspects the guard of honour before his inauguration as President in Kabul, 19 November 2009.
(Photo: Jerry Lampen/Reuters)
Rahimullah has been the curator of Kabul’s British cemetery for the last 30 years. He’s seen presidents come and go, and he has a low opinion of most of them.
The only ones he has a good word for are left-wingers Mohammed Daoud Khan, the country’s first president, and Mohammad Najibullah, who was deposed by the anti-Soviet mujahedin and murdered by the Taliban.
Nowadays, Rahimullah believes all politicians are liars. He gives only a guarded welcome to Karzai’s speech at the ceremony.
“If it works, it will be fine for us,” he says. “But if it doesn’t, that will make many problems for our country.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended the swearing-in, was equally restrained in her reaction.
She declared the new presidency a “window of opportunity to make a compact with the Afghan people”, but she has said that future levels of military and financial aid will be linked to the long-awaited crackdown on corruption.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Britain’s David Milliband were in the audience as Karzai took the oath, but no western heads of state were present.
So he has their endorsement, but with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
The scandal of election fraud has seriously embarrassed them, as has the exposure of massive corruption at all levels of the Afghan state. And US President Barack Obama’s administration has considered Karzai ineffectual since the word go.
But they do not trust his opponents, either, as the election debacle showed, and they are present in Afghanistan due to their own political considerations.
That makes Clinton’s threat of linking aid to a reduction in corruption somewhat hollow.
It is difficult to imagine a US government renouncing the war with the Taliban and declaring that Afghanistan can go to hell in a handbasket. So Washington and its allies are committed to a military presence and aid to its government for some time. That being so, they will provide whatever resources they judge necessary for their ends.
In his speech Karzai responded to the hue and cry over corruption with a call for conference in Kabul. It cannot be a coincidence that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week called for an international conference in London in January.
Karzai clearly wants to increase the input from Afghans, especially those friendly to him.
After all the bitterness of the post-election period, the reinvested President called on his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, and fourth-placed presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, to join him in working for a united Afghanistan.
Missing from the list was third-placed candidate Ramazan Bashardost, the country’s most consistent anti-corruption campaigner, whom Karzai in the past has declared “crazy”.
It is unclear how sincere the invitation to Abdullah is. Is it a promise of a cabinet seat or just a call to be more consensual?
In any case, the man himself seems to have his heart set on official recognition as leader of the opposition, although some of his allies might join the cabinet.
Karzai did take up the Abdullah camp’s call for direct election of mayors, but not for the more important position of provincial governor.
The President expressed the hope that all security would be in the hands of Afghan forces within five years, presumably leaving foreign troops free to go home.
Foreign advisers are running training programmes to transform a force largely made up of former mujahedin guerrillas into a professional army. But poorly-paid Afghan forces have not always been reliable in fighting the Taliban, according to reports, and the principal question is whether their insurrection will weaken, rather than whether international or local forces can become more competent in fighting them.
Many Afghans point out that a key element in achieving that aim is eradicating poverty, as many destitute villagers join the rebels because they pay them. Others are recruited after international forces kill civilians in supposedly anti-Taliban operations.
Karzai said he would improve education with a new exam and a pay rise for teachers, and promised to give aid to farmers and provide jobs, without going into detail as to how he will do so. Such measures are also a key factor in the fight against opium production.
Apart from the references to his fraught relations with his current political rival, Karzai could have made the same speech when he was sworn in 2004. Some of the problems he addressed on Thursday are more serious today than they were five years ago.
Does he have any new solutions up the sleeve of his elegant chapan cape today?