Nearly a third of the votes cast in Mr. Karzai's favor in presidential elections in August were found fraudulent. After much US arm-twisting, he indirectly acknowledged the fraud by agreeing to a runoff election. Now that his main political opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, has dropped out of the two-person runoff and Karzai is the official winner, the US must help him to deliver greater prosperity and security to Afghans.
Improved lives is the only way the Afghan government can restore credibility with the discouraged and disaffected public. It's also the only way, in the long run, to keep the Taliban and Al Qaeda from influence in Afghanistan.
Here are five ways that Washington can move forward with a tainted Karzai:
1. Strongly encourage him to form a new "unity government" that includes Mr. Abdullah, who on Sunday graciously removed himself from the runoff race. Karzai needs a government with wider appeal and greater credibility if he is to effectively influence the entire country.
Abdullah, who was formerly Karzai's foreign minister, contributes on both of those counts. He ran the race (and quit it) on an anticorruption message. He hails from the Northern Alliance that helped topple the Taliban (Karzai comes from the dominant southern Pashtun ethnic group).
2. Apply quiet behind-the-scenes pressure on Karzai. The tough-love public criticism of Karzai has worked mostly to ostracise the Afghan president. Sen. John Kerry's more subdued, but still firm, weekend of persuasion last month produced the desired effect – Karzai's agreement to a runoff.
3. Washington should move quickly to influence selection of the Kabul government's new cabinet. Certainly America's contribution of troops and treasure gives it that right.
Karzai will be tempted to reward friends with high-profile posts, but what matters is competency in governance, especially in three key jobs: defense, interior, and finance. The US has successfully urged competency before – for instance, in backing the current finance minister (and prime minister) of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad.
4. Shift aid and relationships to local and regional leaders. This point counts as much as the first three combined – probably more. Insurgents do their courting outside Kabul, and the US should, too.
For 1,000 years Afghanistan has been ruled with tribal, decentralized government. Experts suggest a constitutional change that takes some powers from the president and gives them to the parliament (one idea even considers the Swiss model of semi-sovereign cantons).
But the US shouldn't wait for such a formal change. If insurgents are to be won over (or bought), if aid is to be turned into roads and schools, if trust and a justice system are to be regained – that must happen at the local and regional level. This strategy has the added benefit of a certain independence from Karzai – but it has to be managed carefully so as not to openly insult him.
5. Finally, the US and its allies need to provide the resources and commitment to support good governance and security at the national, provincial, and local levels. For instance, it does no good to train police if the Taliban lures them away with many more times the pay. And once Afghan security forces have been trained, they need their foreign "teachers" to follow up with them on patrol. That's a people-intensive effort.
As President Obama reconsiders his Afghanistan options, he must have his eyes open to the right balancing of Afghan politics and US resources to make the next five years of Karzai visibly better than his first term.