KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan forces should be ready to take over security in Afghanistan in five years, President Hamid Karzai said at his inauguration Thursday, and pledged to tackle graft which has left his reputation in tatters.
Karzai was sworn in as Washington decides whether to send tens of thousands more troops to fight an increasingly unpopular war. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among foreign officials at the ceremony.
Karzai, 51, also called for a “loya jirga,” a traditional grand assembly, which under Afghanistan’s constitution can take precedence over all government institutions, including the presidency itself.
His inauguration for his second five-year term came against the backdrop of a rising Taliban insurgency, doubts over his legitimacy after an election tainted by fraud, and complaints his government is riddled with corruption and mismanagement.
“We are determined that by the next five years, Afghan forces are capable of taking the lead in ensuring security and stability across the country,” Karzai said.
He said Afghanistan’s security forces should be able to assume responsibility of unstable areas in three years.
U.S. officials say Afghan forces must be able to take over security across the country before foreign troops can leave. There are nearly 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans, more than half arriving this year.
Despite an announcement this week that Afghanistan would set up an anti-corruption unit, Clinton, in her first visit as secretary of state, earlier criticized Karzai for not taking enough measures to combat graft.
“They’ve done some work on that, but in our view, not nearly enough to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to tackle corruption,” she told reporters en route to Kabul Wednesday.
“VERY DANGEROUS ISSUE”
Clinton said Washington would support the new government but expected serious results in building an “accountable, transparent government.”
Karzai said corruption was a “a very dangerous issue” and pledged to appoint competent and professional ministers.
A decision by U.S. President Barack Obama on whether to send up to 40,000 troops to combat a resurgent Taliban partly depends on whether Karzai can be trusted to press ahead with reforms. Obama said Wednesday he sought to bring the conflict to an end before he leaves office.
A U.N.-backed probe found that nearly a third of votes for Karzai in the August 20 election were fake.
While Karzai had been expected to win anyway, the extent of the fraud in his favor severely damaged his credibility at home and among Western and other nations with troops fighting to support his government.
He has since faced tough pressure from Western leaders to clamp down on widespread corruption and replace former guerrilla leaders and cronies with able technocrats in his new government.
Karzai had been set to take on former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah in a November 7 run-off before his opponent withdrew, citing more fraud fears. Despite pressure from the West for a power-sharing deal, Abdullah has ruled out joining Karzai.
“I have no intention of taking part in Karzai’s government,” Abdullah told Afghanistan’s Tolo television on Thursday.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the most prominent foreign leader at the ceremony, watched Karzai’s inauguration with foreign ministers from Britain, France and Turkey.
Kabul’s streets were deserted early Thursday with armored vehicles blocking off major roads. Security officers even stopped people from walking on the streets.
The government declared Thursday a holiday and reporters were barred from attending the swearing-in ceremony.
Karzai was installed by the United States and its Afghan allies in 2001. He won a full term in the country’s first democratic presidential election in 2004.