Karzai's Last Chance

As he was sworn in for a second term as president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai’s inaugural address sought to appease the critics—and keep nationalism alive.

11.19.09 11:56 PM ET

For better or worse, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s second inaugural address marked the beginning of his final chance to shake off the vilification he’s received at home and abroad, and set a course for action.

In an inaugural unlikely to enter the canon of great political rhetoric, Karzai alternately appeased his audience and asserted his independence, promising change in Afghanistan in an address tacitly acknowledging the international criticism of his leadership.

President Obama did not get a personal shout-out, but at least Karzai acknowledged the importance of the U.S. contribution.

The second inaugural poses a unique challenge for any world leader facing a final term, especially an embattled incumbent like Karzai, whose reelection was tainted by allegations of vote fraud. I asked John McConnell, the deputy White House chief speechwriter at the time of President George W. Bush’s second inaugural, to explain the stakes of such a speech. (Full disclosure: I once worked as John’s assistant in the White House speechwriting office.)

Christina Lamb: Karzai’s Paranoid World “There are two big challenges for a second inaugural address. The first is continuity without repetition—staying on the successful themes of your first term without simply rehashing the language,” McConnell told me. “Second, the speech should signal renewed energy—letting people know that you're going to work as hard in the later days as you did in the early ones.”

In Dari and Pashtu, Karzai did rehash his first-term achievements—specifically, a free-market economy, improved access to health care and educational opportunity—and sought to appease the concern of donor nations. Karzai devoted little energy to reaching the Afghan people, perhaps because he must satisfy a convoluted onslaught of international constituencies. With those concerns bearing down on him, his rhetoric could only soar so high.

Instead of a short, eloquent Lincoln-esque second inaugural, Karzai’s speech focused on regaining and rehabilitating partnerships with the international community. The remarks were akin to an American president’s State of the Union address. Political necessity dictated that Karzai present concrete steps to combat corruption and improve security. He gave little explanation of how this would affect the Afghans who will ultimately decide whether the strategy is a success or a failure.

His tips of the hat were telling. The translated version included his thanks to “distinguished jihadi leaders”—a reminder that Karzai has to balance the demands of ex-mujahideen, representing Afghanistan’s bloody civil-war era, with those of Western nations pressing for reform. He also thanked those who helped him hold on to power, such as the Independent Election Commission, deemed complicit in election fraud by international election monitors. Ethnic tensions were exacerbated by the contentious and fraudulent election—and President Karzai sought to quell those tensions by praising his rival, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai must now make a concerted effort to include Dr. Abdullah and his followers in the new Afghan government if he is to move the country forward after the contentious three-month campaign period.

Karzai also singled out King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for his “many commendable efforts toward peace and national reconciliation in Afghanistan.”

President Obama did not get a personal shout-out, but at least Karzai acknowledged the importance of the U.S. contribution. The second-largest contributor of troops to the country—the Brits—merited no mention. British public support for the mission in Afghanistan has plummeted as British soldiers fight and die in the volatile insurgent hotbed to the south. Karzai’s slight might reflect the conspiracy theory—believed by many Afghans—that the British are aligned with Pakistan, and have colonial designs. Karzai outlined a renewed contract for Afghanistan through concrete steps promoting anti-corruption, reconciliation, and security. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a “visionary outline.”

Karzai vowed to prosecute the scourge of narco-trafficking and announced concrete anti-corruption measures, such as a tribunal for prosecuting those complicit in bribes and theft of aid. He announced that senior government officials must identify the sources of their assets. The  implementation of such a policy will be interesting: Will Hummers and Mercedes SUVs disappear from the streets of Kabul? Who will rent the multimillion-dollar mansions that would be seized under such a law?

Karzai promised that Afghan security forces will take responsibility for security in five years, an ambitious timetable giving hope of exit to the international community. He also called for the removal of private security contractors within two years. Afghanistan does not have a comparable number of private security contractors to the forces employed in Iraq, and private security contractors have largely escaped scrutiny and headlines in Afghanistan, with the exception of press accounts of sexually charged and raucous parties by private security providers at the U.S. Embassy in September of this year.

Playing to national sentiment, Karzai noted that he would take the matter up with the U.S., and that Afghanistan should be responsible for the detention and prosecution of prisoners. Addressing prisons and civilian casualties resonates politically; during the campaign, Karzai used these issues to appeal to a sense of nationalism.

Perhaps the most glaring omission in his remarks: his scant mention of improving the plight of women in Afghanistan. In bland language, Karzai asserted that it is the duty of the Afghan government to secure the rights of women and that their condition should be improved. He missed a chance to take a more convincing stand.

In Karzai’s defense, as Abraham Lincoln mentioned in his second inaugural, perhaps “little that is new could be presented.” Today there is no shortage of baggage from the past eight years—the ruin of war, missed opportunities, and failed expectations. Certainly the past eight years have hardened Karzai’s outlook—and caused allies like America to view Afghanistan with a much more skeptical eye.

Can Karzai reclaim the hope of earlier years and move his people—and the international community—to believe in him again?

In a moving passage of Robert Kaplan’s Soldiers of God, originally published in 1990, the author wrote about Karzai as a much younger man. Karzai told him of entering a refugee camp in 1980 in Pakistan and how Afghan refugees expected help from him because of his status as the son of a powerful Afghan tribal leader.

“They thought that just because I was the khan’s son, I had the power to help them,” Kaplan quoted Karzai, who was in 1980 a college student in India. “My goal from that moment on was to become the man those refugees thought I was.”

Karzai has had this power for eight years, and, barring unforeseens, will hold on for five more. Will he become that man—the man with the power to change lives of Afghans, who have suffered so many years of war, death and destruction? He has one more chance to deliver, once or for all.

Elise Jordan served as a director for communications in the National Security Council from 2008-2009. A former speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she lived and worked in Kabul for most of the last year.