KABUL (Reuters) – Foreign dignitaries began descending on Kabul on Wednesday, the eve of the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai, who is struggling to rehabilitate his tattered reputation in the West after a fraud-marred election.
U.S. President Barack Obama, soon to announce whether he will send tens of thousands of extra troops, said his new Afghan strategy would emphasize an “end game”, ensuring U.S. forces are not dragged into a long-term occupation against U.S. interests.
Afghanistan’s foreign ministry says 300 international dignitaries will attend Thursday’s oath-taking ceremony at the sprawling presidential palace in Kabul, including 30 presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have confirmed they will attend. For security reasons, the United States did not say in advance who would come.
In an interview with CNN, Obama said he did not want to hand over the war to his successor, and his strategic review would include an exit strategy to avoid “a multi-year occupation that won’t serve the interests of the United States”.
“The American people will have a lot of clarity about what we’re doing, how we’re going to succeed, how much this thing is going to cost, what kind of burden does this place on our young men and women in uniform and, most importantly, what’s the end game on this thing,” he said.
The Taliban insurgency has never been deadlier during Karzai’s 8-year rule, the Western force protecting him has never been larger, and his own reputation has never been weaker, wrecked by election fraud, corruption and weak government.
Security for the inauguration in Kabul will be extreme, with roads closed in the capital. The government declared Thursday a holiday and told citizens to stay off the streets. Reporters will be barred from attending the swearing-in ceremony itself.
The centerpiece will be Karzai’s inauguration speech, with Western officials hoping that the veteran leader can lay out a specific program to combat corruption, improve performance and limit the influence of former warlords.
“We would like some sort of roadmap. We want some clear direction given here,” a European diplomat said.
The election, intended to bolster the legitimacy of the Afghan leader, had the opposite effect, driving a wedge between Karzai and the Western countries whose troops defend him, and alienating many Afghans.
A U.N.-backed probe concluded nearly a third of votes for Karzai in the August 20 poll were fake, meaning he failed to win the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round. He was declared the winner anyway when his opponent quit before the run-off.
“No one can change the fact that Karzai won the election through fake votes and support from notorious warlords in return for ministerial and high-ranking posts,” said Abdul Shukoor, an elderly man heading to a Kabul mosque for noon prayers.
“When the government is based on cheating and compromise, I can guarantee you, there won’t any improvement for many years.”
Obama gave a lukewarm endorsement of Karzai, saying Washington’s focus was on improving the government as a whole.
“I think that President Karzai has served his country in important ways. If you think about when he first came in, there may not have been another figure who could have held that country together,” Obama said in the CNN interview.
“He has some strengths, but he’s got some weaknesses. And I’m less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people in a way that confers legitimacy on them.”
In Western countries, public support for the war has tumbled as the insurgency spreads and death tolls soar.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Tuesday found that 52 percent of Americans now believe the war is not worth fighting, although 55 percent believe Obama will choose a strategy that will work.
Obama has already presided over a massive escalation of the war. There are now nearly 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans, more than half arriving this year.
Obama’s commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has requested tens of thousands of additional troops, warning that without them, the war will probably be lost.
Karzai’s government announced anti-graft measures this week, including a new major crimes police task force, prosecutors’ unit and tribunal — steps welcomed in the West, although it remains to be seen if they will be more effective than previous efforts.
Karzai was installed by the United States and its Afghan allies after they helped drive the Taliban from power in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001. He won a full term in the country’s first democratic presidential election in 2004.