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US ambassador to Afghanistan's criticism adds urgency to curbing Karzai

Influential US ambassador Karl Eikenberry has reportedly argued that Afghanistan is too politically unstable under Karzai to send more troops. Western and Afghan officials are brainstorming ways to check the president's power.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 12, 2009

US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, pictured in this Oct. 14 file photo.

Altaf Qadri/AP/File


Kabul, Afghanistan

America's ambassador to Afghanistan has objected to sending more troops here while the political situation remains unsettled, in a move that highlights how the fraud marred reelection of President Hamid Karzai has not quelled calls for major governmental reform, but only magnified them.

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Ambassador Karl Eikenberry has reportedly sent multiple cables back to Washington over the past week adding outlining his misgivings to a proposed surge of tens of thousands of US troops requested by the commander of NATO forces here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Mr. Eikenberry himself once commanded US forces in Afghanistan, adding clout to his concerns.

Western governments are trying to carve out ways to reach around Mr. Karzai by forging working relationships with other levels of the Afghan government. The constitution, however, gives Karzai sweeping powers, meaning he can expect to face international pressure now to appoint more effective deputies and heed postelection calls for constitutional reform.

"What you need to do is have good ministers who know their own portfolios, that decisionmaking is decentralized to a workable level and they kick things up to the president when they need to," says a Western diplomat.

While such criteria seem basic, Karzai cut pre-election political deals aimed at shoring up his electoral odds that may give loyalists precedence over technocrats. Some of the most important deals involved notorious warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Marshal Fahim who will now be looking for payback in government jobs for themselves and their supporters.

Qualifications vs. loyalty

Karzai says qualifications for the job are the key. "If there is someone that is not good, if there is someone that is corrupt, if there is someone that's just not up to the standard that we want, for whatever reason, everybody will agree that that person should be there in the government," Karzai said Monday in an interview with PBS's NewsHour.

Karzai has broad authority over appointments – not just in his cabinet but deep into the provinces – leaving the international community with only one very important point of leverage: troop levels. The US debate over whether to surge, maintain, or draw down troops penetrated the ruling elite in Kabul during the height of the election drama, when Sen. John Kerry finally prevailed upon Karzai to accept an election runoff.