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Obama presses Afghan leader on corruption

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday admonished President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that he must take on what U.S. officials have said he avoided during his first term: the rampant corruption and drug trade that has fueled the resurgence of the Taliban.

As Karzai was officially declared the winner of the disputed presidential election, Obama placed a congratulatory call in which he asked for a "new chapter" in the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

What he is seeking, Obama told reporters afterward, is "a sense on the part of Karzai that, after some difficult years in which there has been some drift, that in fact he's going to move boldly and forcefully forward and take advantage of the international community's interest in his country to initiate reforms internally. That has to be one of our highest priorities."

The administration wants Karzai and his government to put into place an anticorruption commission to establish strict accountability for government officials at the national and provincial levels.

Some U.S. officials and their European counterparts would like at least a few arrests of what one administration official called "the more blatantly corrupt" people in the Afghan government.

The international community's wish list of potential defendants includes Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a suspected player in Afghanistan's illegal opium trade; Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is accused of involvement in the killings of thousands of Taliban prisoners of war early in the Afghan conflict; and one of Karzai's running mates, Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a former defense minister who is also suspected of drug trafficking.

Obama administration officials have been pressing Karzai to take action against Dostum and Fahim for several months. This summer, Obama even called for an investigation of Dostum. Karzai instead allowed the general to return from exile and reinstated him to his government position, while the general endorsed Karzai and campaigned for him.

Administration officials said the biggest leverage they had with Karzai was the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a number that could change as Obama saw fit.

White House officials said Monday the resolution of the election would not affect the timing of their review of military strategy. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president's announcement was still weeks away. Obama is expected to hold at least one more meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and another with his national security advisers.

On Monday Obama appeared to acknowledge the tough road ahead. Karzai, Obama said, "assured me that he understood the importance of this moment."

"But as I indicated to him," the president said, "the proof is not going to be in words; it's going to be in deeds. And we are looking forward to consulting closely with his government in the weeks and months to come, to assure that the Afghan people are actually seeing progress on the ground."

U.S. and European officials appear to have abandoned any hope that Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah, might join in a coalition government. He withdrew Sunday from a runoff that had been scheduled for Saturday to resolve the uproar over a fraud-plagued first round of voting in August. On Monday, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced there was no need for a runoff now that Karzai's only competitor had withdrawn.

Obama presses Afghan leader on corruption 11/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 2, 2009 11:20pm]
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