The White House today declared Mr. Karzai the legitimate leader of the Afghan government after his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew from a planned runoff election. The development removes a significant obstacle that had complicated the administration's path forward. The White House had said that it couldn't make a final decision on its strategy in Afghanistan until the political crisis there was resolved.
But Dr. Abdullah's withdrawal also forces the US to decide whether Karzai is a legitimate partner. The determination will be crucial, since the counterinsurgency strategy favored by top generals requires a capable Afghan government as a partner.
"We have a greater sense of the lay of the land, and now we have to make critical decisions about how to make this partnership work – and work better than it has in the past," says Alexander Thier, director of the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, in an interview from Pakistan where he is working.
After many weeks and several meetings of his war council, Mr. Obama is now positioned to decide from among a range of options:
• A counterterrorism approach that would focus on narrower attacks against Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and require fewer troops.
• A counterinsurgency approach that could require more than 40,000 troops and commit the US to Afghanistan for at least several years.
• Or something in between.
Media reports suggest that Obama will not be rushed, and the decision remains weeks away. But Republicans are stepping up pressure on the White House. It has "no further pretext for delaying the decision," said Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader, in a statement Monday.
Obama may feel he has to take account for the manner of Karzai's victory. Karzai bested Abdullah in the Aug. 20 election, only for the United Nations to declare one-third of his votes fraudulent, forcing the runoff. But Abdullah was not convinced that the second election would be any fairer than the first and withdrew.
The US has similar concerns going forward. Obama made a congratulatory phone call to Karzai Monday, but he stressed that now is the time for Karzai to begin to rein in rampant corruption in his administration. Obama said he hoped it would be a new chapter for the US in Afghanistan, "but as I indicated to him, the proof is not going to be in words, it's going to be in deeds," Obama said at the White House.
Karzai has been increasingly criticized by Western officials for his government being ineffective and corrupt. The consequence is that its authority barely reaches beyond the capital, helping to earn him the nickname the "Mayor of Kabul."
It is not entirely Karzai's fault, says Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, a security expert in Kabul.
The highly centralized form of government created for Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban probably needs to be thrown out altogether and remade through a process of tribal gatherings known as a loya jirga, says Mr. Rahmani, who is studying in California.
He compares Karzai and the government to a car. "You had the best driver you needed in 2001, but you gave him a junk car and brought in some very bad mechanics to fix it, and then put him in the race," Rahmani says. "Give him a good car."
Profile: Defense Secretary Robert Gates
Mr. Gates is perhaps the most influential voice on President Obama's Afghanistan war council. Click here to read about how he thinks – and how that might shape Mr. Obama's decision.
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