KABUL – For his critics, President Hamid Karzai's inaugural speech Thursday struck all the right notes — sober pledges to get tough on corruption and strengthen his own security forces so foreign troops can start going home. The question now is whether he has the will and ability to deliver.
As he embarks on his second five-year term, Karzai faces a virulent Taliban insurgency and crippling corruption that has sown resentment among Afghans toward his administration — and toward the Western powers that have supported it for eight years.
The West, too, has become resentful, with questions increasingly raised back home why the roughly 103,000 U.S. and other NATO-led troops in Afghanistan are being asked to die for a corrupt and inefficient government. Such concerns are central to the debate inside the Obama administration, which is considering military proposals to send 10,000 to 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan next year.
A subdued Karzai, in his traditional green-striped robe, stayed close to his written text — a departure from his usually relaxed and extemporaneous style. There was none of the excitement and anticipation of his first inauguration in 2004, when hopes were high that Afghanistan had finally turned a corner.
Hundreds of Afghanistan's political and social elite attended the ceremony in the cavernous hall, lined with portraits of Afghan kings, warriors and academics. Men with long beards and expansive turbans sat among others who were clean-shaven and wearing suits, along with women whose heads were covered with scarves, some glittering with sequins.
Dignitaries from across Afghanistan and the world listened intently for the promises of crucial reforms. And Karzai delivered — at least in words.
"We have to learn from the mistakes and shortcomings of the past eight years," he said. "It is through this self-evaluation that we can better respond to the aspirations and expectations of our people."
Western criticisms had been unusually harsh — and public — leading up to his inauguration, particularly after an election so marred by fraud that it took nearly three months to produce a result. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who dined with Karzai on the eve of the ceremony, had warned that U.S. military and financial support would dry up without reforms.
Speaking after the ceremony, Clinton praised Karzai's plans to fight corruption — but also said attention would now turn to his actions.
"He could have been very vague and talked about how we're all against it and all want to end it but he was much more specific," she said. "And we're going to, along with the people of Afghanistan, watch very carefully to see how that's implemented."
As part of efforts to combat graft, Karzai said a law would be adopted under which senior government officials, including deputy ministers and governors, would have to register their assets. Until now, only ministers and higher-ranking officials were required to do so. He also said any government employees connected to the cultivation and trafficking of drugs would be dismissed and prosecuted.
Clinton acknowledged such efforts would not be easy.
"We are under no illusions about the difficulties of this mission," she said.
Another of Karzai's harsh critics, Britain, which has the second-largest contingent of troops in the country after the United States, also had words of praise — tinged with a warning.
"We've got the words now from President Karzai, we've got his commitments," Foreign Secretary David Miliband said after the ceremony. "It's words that have to be turned into deeds. ... Words are good, we've got a clear plan, but now we need to see it implemented."
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown said recently that his country would not continue risking the lives of its soldiers to defend a corrupt regime.
And while Karzai still desperately needs the foreign troops to battle the Taliban, he insisted that within half a decade, it would be Afghanistan's own army and police who would be in charge, with international forces providing only support and training.
"We are determined that by the next five years, the Afghan forces are capable of taking the lead in ensuring security and stability across the country," Karzai said.
He also took aim at the private security firms used by many embassies, international charities and high-ranking local officials, saying they must shut down within two years.
But some fear a five-year timeframe is unrealistic given the poor state of Afghan security forces and the sophistication and viciousness of the insurgents.
Even as the ceremony took place in Kabul, a suicide bomber killed two U.S. service members in the southern province of Zabul, local officials and NATO said. Hours later, another suicide bomber blew himself up in a busy marketplace in another province, killing 10 civilians, including three boys, and wounding 13 other people.
"If you want the quality of this army to be solid enough so that it's self-sustained and relatively independent, it will take at least 10 years," said Candace Rondeaux, an analyst for the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group.
Speaking earlier this month, the commander for international forces in southern Afghanistan, Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart C. de Kruif, painted a grim picture of the task of training an army while fighting an insurgency.
"Building the Afghan National Army is like learning to fly while building the plane," he said.
For their part, the Taliban rejected Karzai's inauguration as meaningless, saying they would not accept his call for national unity.
"Today is not a historic day. This is a government based on nothing because of the continuing presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan," spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said.
Wadir Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University, said that while the speech struck the right cord for the international community, few Afghans could believe him.
"It is just for the satisfaction of the Western nations," Safi said, arguing that Karzai has welcomed too many people with questionable ties into his administration to paint himself as a reformer.
Mohammed Qasim Fahim, Karzai's first vice president, has repeatedly denied charges of ties to drug dealers and stealing state money when he was last in the government. Prominent adviser Gen. Rashid Dostum is a warlord under investigation for human rights abuses.
But the head of Afghanistan's human rights commission said the speech was along the right tracks.
"The speech was good because he said we need action," said Sima Samar. "He can deliver if there is a political will — but not just on his part, also on the part of the international community."
Still, for 20-year-old Kabul shopkeeper Habibullah, who gathered with friends to watch the ceremony on television, Karzai was full of promises he had heard before.
"I remember the previous swearing in five years ago — people are still suffering. Security is bad. Life has not improved," he said. "Nothing has changed between this time and before. You should only have to promise once."