, KABUL, Nov 18 – Hamid Karzai, due Thursday to be sworn in as Afghan president for another five years, will take his oath of office wearing the stain of corruption that pervades his government.
In what is being billed by the presidential palace as a "glorious" occasion, Karzai is expected to use his inauguration speech to calm some of the disquiet among his international backers by promising change.
Scepticism about his willingness to comply with conditions for continuing Western support will be difficult to dispel, as even many among his own people have doubts about Afghanistan\’s future with Karzai still at the helm.
"He has to give an appearance of action because he has no political capital, so he has to print his own political money," said a Western diplomat.
"If you consider that Jesus Christ walked on water, anything is possible," he said of Karzai\’s second chance to prove he is a statesman worthy of support.
Nevertheless, said a senior US official, Karzai "is being set up for success and whatever he proposes we will echo with support".
"Karzai\’s pledges and promises to the Afghan people have to include corruption, jobs, security, better governance, delivery of services.
"What is he going to propose? And then is he going to deliver? What if it is empty rhetoric for the next five years?"
The deadline for progress, he said, is mid-2010 when the US political class will begin to focus on mid-term elections.
"From day one the talk in Washington has been by next summer, because they are funding this and if they don\’t see progress, they will want to scale back.
"It\’s a matter of degrees. If you are President (Barack) Obama you have one eye on the casualty figures in Helmand and indicators like corruption, but you also have one eye on jobs in Detroit," he said.
Karzai\’s inauguration is controversial as it follows an August 20 election marred by massive ballot-stuffing — mostly in Karzai\’s favour — and the withdrawal of his main challenger Abdullah Abdullah from a run-off.
Election officials said around a million of the 1.3 million fake votes they found — of a total less than six million — had been cast for Karzai.
To many Afghans, Karzai\’s presidency lacks legitimacy, his government lacks authority, and the way in which he took the presidency lacks credibility.
"I believe if things continue as they have in the past several years, if no changes are made the situation won\’t improve," Mohammad Amin Farhang, former cabinet minister, told AFP.
"Definitely there are corrupt people in the government, they must be replaced by those who think for the people, not for themselves."
For the public in the 40-plus nations with troops fighting the Taliban, revelations of the extent of official fraud have led to an alarming drop in support for the war.
Corruption watchdog Transparency International on Tuesday lowered its rating for Afghanistan to second, from fifth, most corrupt nation in the world, better only than lawless Somalia.
The report comes as Obama considers deploying 40,000 more troops amid arguments from commanders that without more boots on the ground they are fighting a lost cause.
Karzai has come under enormous pressure to show commitment to eradicating graft, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making a clear connection between action and the continued cost to the West, both in lives and money.
Clinton\’s call was followed by the announcement on Monday of the establishment of an anti-corruption task force — complementing another graft fighting office that has made little progress in the year since it was set up.
Diplomats have referred to Karzai\’s first public appearance after his re-election, during which he promised to clear Afghanistan of the "stain of corruption" while flanked by Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a warlord accused of human rights abuses and drug trafficking.
"That message was not lost on anyone," said a Western diplomat. "It\’s just going to be business as usual and the long-suffering Afghan people just have to put up with it."
Others were not so gloomy about another five years of Karzai.
"There\’s not unbridled optimism, it\’s tempered with reality," said another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The sense in Washington is here\’s a moment, here\’s the inaugural address, what are we going to see in the next six to eight months?
"But so many things depend on political will. It\’s not just pretty words — and Karzai is pretty good at that — but actions to back that up."