KABUL, Afghanistan — On the eve of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's swearing-in for a second term, speculation is growing that he could be forced to step aside before he finishes his next five years in office.
The challenge before him is monumental: Regain the trust of voters disenchanted by the fraud-tainted election that returned him to power, assure frustrated world leaders that the billions of dollars spent trying to stabilize Afghanistan haven't been wasted or stolen and, with the help of U.S. and NATO forces, recover control of large parts of the country from Taliban fighters.
The 51-year-old president has to please contradictory forces to survive: the discredited Afghan political allies who helped him win re-election, and the international community, which is demanding an end to cronyism and to pervasive government corruption.
Karzai has to assure President Barack Obama quickly that he has a credible partner if Obama decides to send as many as 40,000 more American soldiers to the fight in Afghanistan.
Karzai will have to help build a competent Afghan military capable of battling emboldened insurgents who now are operating in much of his country. He also has to contain a thriving opium industry that's the source of 90 percent of the world's heroin supply, often with the complicity of corrupt officials and police officers.
"It would take a miracle," said Abdullah Abdullah, the one-time foreign minister who abandoned a planned runoff against Karzai earlier this month because of concerns that the second round of voting could be as tainted as the first round was. "And, as Muslims, we don't believe miracles are possible now."
"The leadership in Afghanistan is getting more and more oblivious to the situation on the ground," Abdullah told McClatchy. "It's becoming obsessed with its own ideas, which are out of touch with reality."
The mood at the inauguration Thursday at the presidential palace is likely to be decidedly more somber than it was five years ago, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney led a high-profile delegation to Kabul as Karzai became Afghanistan's first democratically elected president.
Vice President Joe Biden, who has a strained relationship with Karzai, won't attend. Few world leaders are planning to fly to Kabul for an inauguration that will take place under heavy security, bracing for potential Taliban attacks.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the highest-profile American leader who's expected to take part in the inauguration, warned Karzai last weekend that the United States might suspend civilian aid to Afghanistan unless he takes new steps to prevent the money from being squandered or stolen.
With Karzai chafing at the international pressure, Obama's advisers are divided over how much support to offer the Afghan president.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, America's top military commander in Afghanistan, has warned Obama that the United States could lose the war against the Taliban unless he agrees to send as many as 40,000 more soldiers over the next year.
However, some administration officials are reluctant to pursue an Iraq-style "military surge" until they're convinced that Karzai will match it with a "political surge" capable of restoring a measure of confidence in the Afghan government.
Chief among the skeptics is U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army general, who's raised reservations about a major infusion of troops without a commitment from Karzai to fight corruption.
Eikenberry outlined his concerns Monday when he joined top Karzai ministers in unveiling a new anti-corruption task force in Kabul.
"Ordinary Afghans must be convinced that the powerful can no longer exploit their positions to make themselves wealthy while the less fortunate struggle to find work and to feed their families," Eikenberry said.
"The appearance of luxurious mansions around Kabul with many expensive cars ... surrounded by private armed guards, is a worrisome sign that some Afghans are cheating their people while claiming to be in their service."
Eikenberry and American officials in Kabul have been working quietly with Karzai to ensure that discredited Afghan leaders don't dominate his next Cabinet.
American and Afghan officials told McClatchy that the U.S. had given Karzai a list of 40 people whom it considered clean enough to be part of the new Cabinet. However, Karzai also faces pressure to reward shady political allies who helped him win re-election. Should he fall short of U.S. demands, some expect the Obama administration to push the Afghan president from power long before his term ends.
Sarwar Mohammed Roshan, who served as Karzai's campaign manager when he ran for president the first time, said the U.S. might have to support a caretaker government eventually to replace Karzai.
"If we don't do something drastic, believe me, we will be sorry," said Roshan, who suggested that adding more troops now would be counterproductive. "Bringing in more troops and keeping the status quo would create the impression that the Americans are making Afghans kneel before this (Karzai) gang."
Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who challenged Karzai for the presidency this year, echoed those concerns.
"Hamid Karzai assumes his second term as president without a honeymoon," Ghani wrote in a recent opinion piece for The Guardian newspaper in London.
"He faces a crisis of both domestic and international confidence," Ghani wrote, "and has the option to become either a statesman or an outcast."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009