- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 24, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Afghanistan’s president has taken control of a formerly independent body that monitors election fraud, raising concern Tuesday that he’s reneging on promises to clean up corruption and cronyism — a pillar of the Obama administration’s plan to erode support for the Taliban.

In another effort to win the trust of Afghans as a mass offensive continues against the Taliban in the south, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan went on national television to apologize for an air strike that killed civilians.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal made the rare televised appearance two days after an air strike in central Uruzgan province killed at least 21 people, according to Afghan officials. A video of the apology was posted on a NATO Web site and broadcast by state television in the main Afghan languages, Dari and Pashto.

“I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans,” Gen. McChrystal said in the video. “I have instituted a thorough investigation to prevent this from happening again.”

President Hamid Karzai signed a decree last week giving him the power to appoint all members of the Electoral Complaints Commission, a group previously dominated by U.N. appointees that uncovered massive fraud on behalf of Mr. Karzai in last year’s presidential election.

The decree, which was made public Monday, suggests that Mr. Karzai wants to tighten control of the electoral process ahead of parliamentary balloting next September. The election was due in May but was postponed because foreign donors would not help pay for it without reforms.

“This is bad news for democracy,” said Gerard Russell, a former U.N. political adviser who resigned over disputes surrounding the August presidential election. “Basically if President Karzai wishes it, this could prevent free elections ever being held in Afghanistan.”

Following the fraud-marred August elections, the U.S. and other international partners pressed Mr. Karzai into promising to root out corruption and institute electoral reforms.

The amendment gives the president the authority to appoint all five members of the complaints commission in consultation with parliamentary leaders and the head of the Supreme Court, according to a copy of the decree obtained by the Associated Press.

Previously, the United Nations appointed the chairman and two other commissioners. The Afghan human rights commission and the Supreme Court named one commissioner each.

A Karzai spokesman said the changes were made because foreigners had too much control over the last election.

“The international members had large salaries and didn’t care about Afghanistan’s national interest,” Syamak Herawi said. “Now there won’t be any interference. The foreigners can be observers.”

The top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, met with Mr. Karzai earlier in the month and tried to persuade him to leave the U.N. appointees in place, according to three Western diplomats familiar with the discussions.

Afghanistan’s election commission declared Mr. Karzai the winner of the Aug. 20 balloting, but the separate complaints commission threw out nearly a third of his votes, forcing him into a runoff with his chief rival Abdullah Abdullah. But the runoff was eventually called off after Mr. Abdullah dropped out, saying he was not confident the second vote would be any fairer than the first.

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