WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama greeted Hamid Karzai's election victory with as much admonishment as praise on Monday, pointedly advising America's partner in war he must make more serious efforts to end corruption in Afghanistan's government and prepare his nation to ultimately defend itself.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai waves his hat as he waits to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Kabul November 2, 2009. [Agencies]
"I emphasized that this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter," Obama said in describing his phone call to the Afghan president. When Karzai offered back assurances, Obama said he told him that "the proof is not going to be in words. It's going to be in deeds."
Obama's message of stern solidarity came as he considers sending tens of thousands more US troops into the war zone in Karzai's country.
Karzai won a second term Monday when competitor Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the Nov. 7 runoff, suggesting it would be doomed by fraud just as the first voting in August was. The handling of the first election cost Karzai in international credibility.
Yet the White House put its weight behind the legitimacy of the final outcome after helping to broker a runoff that never happened. Obama called the process "messy" but said Karzai won in accordance with Afghan law. The White House repeatedly said Abdullah had pulled out for his own political and personal reasons.
The collapse of the planned run-off increases pressure on the Obama administration to quickly end its lengthy deliberations about whether to commit more US forces to a worsening war. Obama may announce his revamped war strategy, including a decision on sending more troops, early next week before a planned overseas trip.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged that Karzai's win by default is a factor in the coming decision about troops but did not say the timetable for an announcement has changed. The administration continues to say it will happen in the "coming weeks."
In recounting his call to Karzai, Obama spent most of his time saying what he expects from his fellow president: more diligent efforts to end corruption, cooperation in accelerating the training of Afghan security forces, tangible benefits in the lives of the Afghan people.
Those aren't just Obama's standards. He is under pressure to show Congress and the public that the US is dealing with a trustworthy partner, particularly if it is going to send more troops there. Many Americans have grown weary of the war and are questioning its worth.
About 68,000 US troops are already in Afghanistan, where October was the deadliest month for US forces. Several thousands NATO troops from various countries are also committed to a war that has stretched into its ninth year and is focused on combatting insurgents and dismantling al-Qaida terrorists.
Obama said Karzai needs to "take advantage of the international community's interest in his country."
Indeed, the White House made clear that the election gave Karzai legal legitimacy but not necessarily any new boost of credibility.
"Nobody has ever made the accusation that credibility was going to be had simply out of one election," Gibbs said.
Relieved US officials said the outcome accomplished two main objectives that have been part of weeks of strategy discussion in Washington: The results yielded finality to a messy process and came only after Karzai acknowledged the illegitimacy of the original balloting.
Knowledge that Karzai would continue at the helm of the Afghan government changed little in the administration's calculus, at least in terms of pushing for reform and anti-corruption and counter-narcotics efforts, said officials who have been involved in strategy discussions. The US government feels the outcome gives it continued leverage to push for reform in Karzai's political house, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not announced his decision on strategy and troops.
Karzai has led Afghanistan since US forces invaded to oust the Taliban in 2001. He won election in 2004, and his latest victory will give him another five-year mandate.