Page last updated at 00:48 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

West seeks new beginnings from Karzai

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News

"Standing shoulder to shoulder." That is how world leaders described their relationship with Afghanistan eight long years ago.

President Karzai of Afghanistan
Hamid Karzai starts a second term as president on Thursday

As Hamid Karzai is sworn in for a second term as an elected president, his allies are now doing much more than that - they are looking over his shoulder, and leaning in, trying to ensure he does what is expected at this critical hour.

Even before President Karzai's own inauguration speech, world leaders publicly let him know what they wanted to hear.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern about "corruption, lack of transparency, poor governance, absence of rule of law".

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was urging Mr Karzai "to set out the contract between the new government and its people including early action on corruption".

The West will want to portray this as a new start
Adviser to President Karzai

Mr Karzai has already identified tackling the "stain of corruption" and bringing peace as his two top priorities.

The UK Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, followed up by saying Mr Karzai would use his speech to set out a "positive new agenda".

The West's "velvet elbows" are resented by some Afghans, who see international pressure as an affront to Afghan sovereignty.

They are welcomed by others who see this as the only way to achieve some long-awaited change.

"The West will want to portray this as 'new start'," remarked one of the president's advisers. "That's not how we see things."

Competing interests

Like a difficult marriage, with a lot of history, both sides will find it hard to put past years behind them, and especially the past six months.

Resentment and suspicion still linger in the presidential palace after a deeply flawed election that Hamid Karzai, and his aides, still believe he won in the first round.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal is the top U.S. and NATO commander for Afghanistan
Afghans view Western involvement as a sensitive issue

They blame foreign interference for a messy process. Many in the president's team criticise moves by US envoy Richard Holbrooke to encourage a range of Afghans to run against the president as a tactic that robbed him of votes.

Among international allies, there is growing frustration with the corruption and ineffectiveness which has fuelled Afghan disenchantment and contributed to the rise of the Taliban. One Western diplomat put it bluntly: "We still don't have a partner here."

And yet no-one can turn away from this relationship now, not at this 11th hour.

It's a truism but it is still being said: every year is critical in Afghanistan, but this year is critical indeed.

It is a time when many Nato allies are under growing pressure at home to take their troops off a dangerous front line.

It is also a time when many Afghans are asking questions about an international commitment that has not translated into the kind of change they expected.

Much of the criticism has tended to focus on Mr Karzai. But there is a sense, at least in Kabul, that strong public and personal attacks do not change much, and can backfire.

Testing all options

There have been months of discussion about how to recalibrate this partnership.

Western envoys have mooted a range of possible changes to the structure of the president's team, ranging from super ministers who would oversee key areas or "pillars", to a chief executive officer.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) addresses a press conference with his two vice presidents Mohammad Qasim Fahim (L) and Karim Khalili (R) at the Presidential Palace on November 3, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan.
President Karzai is under pressure to shake up his cabinet

All the options have faced some resistance either from the president himself or his key advisers.

I asked a diplomat about reports that foreign envoys were now giving the president preferred names for his next cabinet. "Those days are over," he said.

"Those days" refers to the early years when foreigners traipsed in and out of the presidential palace with names for the president to appoint or sack.

The president told me recently, rather tersely: "The international community should understand how much our sovereignty matters."

Old habits die hard. Names are still being raised. But a new approach appears to be less direct, possibly less offensive, but more consequential.

Question of aid

Both Afghan advisers and diplomats speak in similar terms - discussions focus less on individuals, more on aid to key ministries responsible for development priorities.

But the underlying message is clear: aid will not be given to ineffective ministries. It is up to the president to decide whether he wants that aid or not.

Afghan girl at school
Poor infrastructure: transport, telecommunications and power
A volatile security situation
Pervasive corruption
Nascent banking system with limited commercial financing
Inconsistent customs procedures
High transport costs
Little or no enforcement of intellectual property rights
Competition from cheap goods and services: Pakistan, China and Iran
Shortage of skilled labour and trained personnel
Source: World Bank

Mrs Clinton has already made it clear - in public - that US aid is not a given.

UN special representative Kai Eide also recently drew a new line in this relationship, emphasising aid was conditional on effective government action against corruption and a culture of impunity.

It provoked a stern rebuke. In an equally strongly worded statement, the Afghan foreign ministry said Mr Eide's intervention "regretfully crossed the accepted international norms".

But some reform-minded presidential advisers admit privately that pressure can provide useful ammunition for a president who finds it hard to turn away old and still powerful but discredited allies.

But they also bristle at suggestions they do not know what must done.

"We must ensure there are effective people in key ministries," affirmed a senior adviser expected to remain in the next government.

But, he said, President Karzai would also need to reward friends, some of whom would not meet the new criteria.

Corruption war

Concern has been expressed by Afghans and foreigners that the president's deals in the run-up to elections meant he had to reward too many, including commanders and political leaders still known as "the jihadis" for their involvement in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

But Afghans are also making it clear it is not a one-way street.

Hamid Karzai's administration has been accused of corruption

"We can't deny there is corruption," says Finance Minister Omar Zakhiwal, adding that "in the last six to seven months I have fired more than 100 people in my ministry, and in recent weeks I busted one of the biggest corruption rings".

But in a recent interview he also took aim at foreign companies and donors, saying: "They need to come to terms with our regulations."

He pointed to allegedly widespread tax evasion as just one example of what he and others see is the bulk of misused money.

Expect a lot of careful choreography in the months to come. There is talk of a conference early in the year in Afghanistan to reinforce the "compact" between the president and his people. And there are moves to hold an international conference too.

The UN's Kai Eide has often expressed concern about a proliferation of conferences and strategies, with insufficient preparation and follow-up by either side.

But foreign partners insist action must be taken, and be seen to be taken.

So both sides will be looking over each other's shoulder, rubbing each other the wrong way occasionally, but trying to make a difficult relationship work as best they can. Too much is at stake not to.

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