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Karzai and Holbrooke in testy exchange over elections


Latest update : 2009-08-28

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US envoy Richard Holbrooke had “sharp exchanges” over last week's Afghan elections, in which Karzai is so far ahead. The US is concerned about allegations of electoral fraud.

AFP - Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US envoy Richard Holbrooke engaged in a testy exchange over recent elections, a source said, underscoring potentially cooler US ties if Karzai wins another term.

Holbrooke, a veteran US diplomat who is the special envoy to the region, pressed the Afghan leader on last week's elections amid allegations of widespread vote-rigging, an official with knowledge of the meeting told AFP.

"It was a difficult meeting and there were some sharp exchanges in it," the official said in Washington on condition of anonymity.

Holbrooke met with all of the candidates in Afghanistan's second-ever presidential election and shared a meal with Karzai on August 21, the day after the vote.

"The thrust of the meeting was to respect the electoral process, let it take its course and be patient and to respect the results, whatever they are," the US official said.

The official said Holbrooke reiterated to each candidate the public US line that Washington was neutral in the race and steered clear of recommending any new vote while waiting for complete results.

Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the aftermath of the 2001 US-led military operation that ousted the extremist Taliban regime, enjoys a narrow lead as results trickle in.

His main competitor, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, has railed against what he says is vast state-engineered fraud but has urged his supporters to be patient and work through the electoral system.

Karzai enjoyed a warm relationship with former US president George W. Bush, with whom he often consulted by videoconference. Bush's ambassador to Kabul, Zalmay Khalizad, was a frequent dinner guest of Karzai.

Karzai's relationship is widely seen as cooler with President Barack Obama's administration.

Members of the Obama team have been alarmed at what they see as a lack of action against corruption and were taken aback by Karzai's alliances with warlords accused of human rights abuses during Afghanistan's nearly three decades of war.

The United States has been particularly concerned over Karzai's running mate, former anti-Taliban commander Mohammed Qasim Fahim, raising questions about how Washington will deal with him if he becomes vice president.

A senior State Department official said the administration has had "a number of conversations" with the Afghan government about its composition.

Human Rights Watch has called Fahim one of Afghanistan's "most notorious warlords" and said he is widely believed still to run armed militias that give cover to drug traffickers and other criminals.

Karzai has defended Fahim, calling him a war hero and a unifying force. Fahim is a Tajik, the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan after Karzai's Pashtuns.

Separately, Obama last month ordered an investigation into allegations another Karzai ally, Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, killed up to 2,000 prisoners in 2001 and that the Bush administration failed to probe the charges.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who led the Obama team's review of policy to the region, said Dostum was "renowned for his brutality -- even by Afghan standards, and that's a pretty high standard."

"The point here is if Karzai is returned to office now because of Dostum as his supporter, then hopes for anti-corruption and good governance and the rest are going to be rather bleak in the new second round of a Karzai administration," Riedel said.

Obama has made eradicating Islamic extremism from the region a key priority in his young presidency and deployed another 21,000 troops to Afghanistan.

Obama has also faulted the Bush administration for too closely linking US policy to Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who was replaced a year ago by civilian President Asif Ali Zardari.

Date created : 2009-08-28