Hamid Karzai sworn in as Afghan president

KABUL: Newly-inaugurated Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged on Thursday to tackle corruption and said his country’s security forces should be ready to take over responsibility of unstable areas in three years.

Karzai 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.

Karzai’s inauguration 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.

‘Afghanistan wants to lead operations in non-secure areas in the next three years,’ Karzai said. Corruption, he said, is a ‘very dangerous issue, we must strongly pursue it’.

‘Ministers must be competent, professional and in service to the nation,’ Karzai said as hundreds of Afghan and foreign dignitaries watched.

Karzai’s swearing-in came as he faced renewed criticism from Washington over corruption.

Hillary Clinton, in her first visit to Afghanistan as US secretary of state, said Washington would support the new government but expected serious results in combating corruption and building an ‘accountable, transparent government’.

‘Well, we are asking that they follow through on much of what they have previously said, including putting together a credible anti-corruption governmental entity,’ Clinton told reporters en route to Kabul.

‘They’ve done some work on that, but in our view, not nearly enough to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to tackle corruption,’ she said.

Kabul announced the creation this week of a major crimes task force and anti-graft unit.

A decision by US President Barack Obama on whether to send tens of thousands of extra troops to combat the Taliban partly depends on whether he can trust Karzai to press ahead seriously with reforms.

President Asif Ali Zardari, the most prominent foreign leader at the ceremony, watched Karzai’s inauguration with foreign ministers from Britain, France and Turkey.

Security lockdown

Kabul’s streets were deserted early on Thursday with armoured vehicles blocking off major roads. Security officers were even stopping people from walking on the streets.
The government has declared Thursday a holiday and reporters were barred from attending the swearing-in ceremony.

‘They should all go to hell … What’s happened in the last five years? It will just be the same again,’ said Mohammed Shah, as he struggled to make his way back home.

Obama’s deliberations on whether to dispatch up to 40,000 more troops to fight an increasingly unpopular war proceed as death tolls mount. He said on Wednesday he sought to bring the conflict to an end before he leaves office.

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, wants tens of thousands of additional troops, warning that without them, the war will probably be lost.

A UN-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 favour 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 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.

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