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U.S., Afghans must deliver on election promises

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s relatively calm election was a welcome boost for President Barack Obama’s strategy but with waning U.S. public support for the war both countries will need quick military and political successes.

Experts say no matter who wins -- with incumbent President Hamid Karzai the favorite -- the ultimate victor’s approach and whether Thursday’s election is deemed credible will have a big impact on the success or failure of U.S. strategy.

“We are going to need an understanding from whoever the new president is that Afghanistan is going to rise to the occasion,” said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution think tank.

“We have now put roughly 70,000 American soldiers into this war, we are committing billions of dollars in new assistance. We are living up to our end of the deal to resource the war properly,” added Riedel, who oversaw the Obama administration’s policy review this year of Afghanistan/Pakistan policy.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said if Karzai wins Washington would have to improve relations with him and counter the incumbent’s view that the United States had wanted someone else elected.

“What they (Obama administration officials) need to do is to establish a relationship of mutual trust. There have been some difficulties,” said Afghan-born Khalilzad, who knows Karzai well.

Washington is also unhappy with Karzai’s recent alliances with warlords such as Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

There needs to be concrete proof early on that a new government is serious about good governance, fighting corruption and embracing the rule of law, said Alex Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace nonpartisan think tank funded by the U.S. Congress.

‘EROSION OF HIS LEGITIMACY’

“A failure to do that, particularly in Karzai’s case, will lead to the further erosion of his legitimacy and also that of the government -- and by extension the international efforts in Afghanistan,” Thier said.

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke told reporters that after the vote count, for the United States corruption is “the most important issue.”

Just as the new Afghan government faces pressure to improve its performance, so will Obama be forced to come up with a more defined approach to the war.

“(Obama) has provided a change of leadership, he’s provided a strategy going from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency, and he’s provided more resources,” said Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress think tank.

“The question becomes: will these things be able to reverse the situation that is deteriorating?” Korb added.

The U.S. Congress will want clear benchmarks to measure whether Washington’s approach is working or whether it will become Obama’s Vietnam War.

“It is showtime,” Thier said. “There will be a real need to show that there is a clear strategic plan and that there is unity between the Afghan government and the international community.”

Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan, a haven for Taliban fighters pushed across a largely unguarded frontier, also remains a critical element in the strategy’s success.

Obama on Thursday said he saw “the Pakistani army for the first time actually fighting in a very aggressive way” and noted recent military gains against militants in that country.

The Afghan election was a test for Obama’s strategy aimed at reversing Taliban gains -- and the fact that militants did not launch wide-scale attacks should be seen as a success for this new approach, said Riedel.

Experts say a run-off in October should Karzai fail to win 50 percent of the vote would ultimately boost the credibility of the outcome and make the U.S. job easier.

Nobody is predicting immediate military success, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates talking about an 18 to 24 month time frame for judging the new Obama strategy.

“It’s a long, difficult slog, so it is going to be some time before we know whether the level of effort we’re expending and the new Obama administration strategy is going to pay off,” said military analyst Nora Bensahel of the RAND Corporation.

Afghans are not the only ones questioning the war, a string of recent U.S. public opinion polls show.

A poll of 1001 U.S. adults published in the Washington Post on Thursday found that 51 percent said the Afghan war was “not worth fighting,” compared to 47 percent who said it was. Among Democrats, it was 70 percent to 27 percent against the war.

Riedel called the poll a “wake-up call” showing that “war weariness has set in, in the United States, and it has set in particularly in the president’s own party.”

Editing by Will Dunham

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