KABUL, Afghanistan — The Obama administration on Tuesday delivered what might be its toughest warning yet to President Hamid Karzai over corruption in his government, but chose a messenger who in the past has managed to forge a rapport with the mercurial Afghan leader in times of tension.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flew in for a one-day visit to the Afghan capital that included two sessions with Karzai, whose relations with the United States have plunged to a low not seen since last summer's fraud-riddled presidential election.
Karzai and the West are in the midst of a confrontation over his efforts to assert control over two Afghan agencies set up with U.S. backing to combat high-level graft and fraud. The dispute burst into the open last month after a senior aide to Karzai was targeted in a bribery investigation.
Karzai has stopped short of trying to shut down or significantly restrict the activities of the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit. But he has hinted he may seek to do so, a prospect that has caused concern among his Western patrons.
Before an evening meeting with the Afghan president, Kerry told reporters he would lay down specific benchmarks that Karzai would need to meet to demonstrate that he was making good-faith efforts to combat corruption.
"I think President Karzai understands that this is an important moment," he said. "It is going to be vital that the president lead, over these next months, a very public, tangible, accountable effort to be providing the best governance to the people."
Last October, Kerry managed to avert a crisis when Karzai balked at accepting the findings of a U.N.-backed panel that stripped him of one-third of his votes in the presidential election. In marathon meetings, Kerry talked the Afghan president into agreeing to a runoff with his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah.
In the end, Abdullah dropped out of the race, but Kerry's intercession was credited with staving off a rupture between the West and Karzai that could have precipitated a chaotic domestic power struggle.
On Monday, Karzai caught Western officials by surprise with an announcement by his spokesman that private security companies operating in Afghanistan would be shut down within four months.
The Afghan president on Tuesday issued a formal decree to that effect, though it granted an exemption for private security firms that work on the premises of international installations such as embassies and nongovernmental organizations.