, KABUL, Nov 19 – Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be sworn in for a second term on Thursday, straining under Western pressure to eradicate corruption and restore legitimacy as a US-led war stretches into a ninth year.
Karzai takes the oath of office with a Taliban insurgency killing record numbers of Western troops and Afghans, limiting government control in growing parts of the country after his controversial re-election steeped in fraud.
Fearing Taliban attacks could mar the ceremony, local and NATO forces have plunged the Afghan capital into security lockdown, closing the international airport and advising foreigners and Afghan citizens to stay indoors.
Karzai\\\’s inaugural address will be the cornerstone of his swearing-in at his heavily fortified palace with visiting Western dignitaries expecting him to commit to concrete reforms to clean up government and repair trust.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Kabul for the first time as Washington\\\’s top diplomat and whose presence at the inauguration is seen as an endorsement of the Afghan president, said the nation faced a "critical moment".
"There is now a clear window of opportunity for President Karzai and his government to make a compact with the people of Afghanistan," she said before dining with Karzai on the eve of Thursday\\\’s ceremony.
Washington has increasingly expressed concerns about Karzai\\\’s reliability as a US ally and effective head of state, urging his government to eradicate corruption to counter an intensifying Taliban-led insurgency.
Clinton has directly linked future levels of military and financial aid – on which impoverished and war-torn Afghanistan depends – to progress in eradicating official corruption.
Yet the United States and NATO – with 100,000 soldiers fighting the Taliban and leaders deciding whether to dispatch tens of thousands of extra troops in a last-ditch effort to win the war – have little choice but to work with Karzai.
President Barack Obama has said his decision on beefing up US troops in Afghanistan is close and that he was weeks away from unveiling a war strategy review, a decision made no easier by Afghanistan\\\’s disputed August election.
Obama\\\’s administration has warned Afghans that America\\\’s military commitment there, more than eight years after the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime and swept Karzai to power, will not be "open-ended".
"We also have to make sure that we\\\’ve got an effective partner in Afghanistan. And that\\\’s something that we are examining very closely and presenting some very clear benchmarks for the Afghan government," Obama said.
The capital is on high alert for Taliban attacks to coincide with the inauguration, with many foreign employees of embassies, the United Nations and aid groups ordered to remain indoors.
Armed police and paramilitary units patrolled roads and intersections, while army, police and intelligence threw a ring of steel around the city, where suicide attacks have killed around 100 people in the last three months alone.
Few on a guest list of 800 were expected to rank above foreign minister among the international dignitaries attending the event scheduled for 11:00 am (0630 GMT).
"By not attending, (Western heads of state) are sending the message that I am not your friend any more," one diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"Karzai has to earn political capital because he has none left," he said.
Scepticism about his willingness to comply with conditions for continued Western support will be difficult to dispel, particularly with Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim, accused of human rights abuses and drug trafficking.
To many Afghans, Karzai\\\’s presidency lacks legitimacy, his government lacks authority and the way in which he took the presidency lacks credibility.
Karzai, 51, was declared re-elected on November 2 by his own officials after a UN-backed commission found nearly a third of votes cast for Karzai on August 20 were fraudulent and his challenger Abdullah Abdullah abandoned a run-off.
In 2004, Karzai won Afghanistan\\\’s first presidential election with 55.4 percent of the vote.