The Obama administration has a simple-sounding strategy for the problem that is Hamid Karzai: Work with the Afghan leader and around him at the same time.
As President Barack Obama nears an announcement about whether the United States will add military forces to an unpopular war, he cannot avoid dealing with the corruption-stained Afghan leader and the culture of graft and inefficiency that years of U.S. and international largesse has helped to build.
But Washington is also looking for ways to direct aid, expertise and influence to local and provincial governments far from Karzai's compound in Kabul. The U.S. troop infusion widely expected for next year will also largely bypass Karzai, who wants more troops but will not get much say in where they go or how they are used.
"He has some strengths, but he has some weaknesses," Obama said Wednesday.
Never a favorite among Obama insiders, Karzai took office for a second five-year term on Thursday as Washington's inevitable man, instead of the indispensable man he was to former President George W. Bush.
Obama praised Karzai for holding his government together but declined to say he trusts him.
Concern for basic services
"I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people," Obama said in his latest blunt assessment of the Karzai government. Obama made his comments during his trip to Asia in interviews with NBC, CNN and CBS.
The Karzai government's competence and ability to shed at least some of its taint of corruption are critical to whether there will be any credible Afghan civilian support for the growing U.S. war effort, now in its ninth year.
Senior administration officials say they are applying the tough love that Bush did not. For starters, Washington is asking Karzai not to embarrass his patrons by keeping obvious thugs on the payroll.
U.S. officials say they are already diverting some development money and decision-making power away from Kabul ministries, taking advantage of Afghanistan's historically decentralized power system to give local leaders more direct control over projects in their backyards. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama's announcement about a revamped Afghanistan strategy is still under wraps.
The United States would prefer to see honest politicians at the helm of key government ministries such as Interior, Intelligence and Defense and the sketchier Karzai loyalists shunted off to places where they could do the least harm.
Washington has sent word that a few Karzai cronies must go and that he should not toss out ministers who have demonstrated their independence.
One failed critical test, so far, is that Karzai has refused to push aside a half brother long alleged to have links to the drug trade.
"The U.S. strategy cannot be dependent on Karzai," said Alex Thier, an Afghanistan specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "It could not be dependent on him when he was the good guy and it cannot be dependent on him now that he is perceived as the bad guy."
Thier, just back from meeting with U.S and Afghan officials in Afghanistan, said the administration has begun to make good on pledges to cultivate responsible leaders apart from Karzai.
The Karzai government unveiled an anti-corruption and major crimes unit this week just as Afghanistan slipped three places to become the world's second most-corrupt country, according to an annual survey by Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog.
"They've done some work on that, but in our view, not nearly enough to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to tackle corruption," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Wednesday during her flight to Kabul for Karzai's inauguration.
"We are concerned about corruption and we obviously think it has an impact on the quality and capacity of governing. So we're going to be persistent, asking for the kinds of outcomes that we think reflect that they are serious about this. But I can't predict what will or won't happen at this point."
Clinton's presence lends a carefully calibrated blessing to Karzai's second term, which came after one deeply flawed election and one Karzai claimed by default.
Some other nations sent heads of state, but there was never much chance that Obama himself would make the trip.