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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly demanded Friday that the Afghan government rein in corruption, saying he is "not prepared to put the lives of British men and women in harm's way for a government that does not stand up against corruption." We wish President Barack Obama would make a similarly clear public statement on the need for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to purge corrupt officials and bring effective governance to his people as a condition for continued U.S. support against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies.

President Obama called to "congratulate" President Karzai last week after he was declared the winner in his country's flawed elections over the summer. Mr. Obama also reportedly warned his Afghan counterpart privately that the U.S. expected him to use his victory to open a "new chapter" in the struggle against widespread corruption among government officials. Given the political and diplomatic niceties required by such occasions, the White House declined to specify what the president told Mr. Karzai he wanted done. But Mr. Obama owes it to the American people to say where the administration intends to draw the line between cooperating with Kabul and simply writing a blank check to a deeply dysfunctional regime.

Among the corrupt government officials Mr. Obama likely had in mind, for example, were Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a ruthless Uzbek warlord whom human rights groups have accused of committing war crimes; Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a former defense minister suspected of drug trafficking; and Mr. Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, reportedly one of the biggest players in the country's illegal opium trade.

Mr. Obama should have told Mr. Karzai he expected all three men to be arrested and put on trial before the U.S. committed a single additional soldier to fight in Afghanistan. And he should have echoed Prime Minister Brown's insistence that Mr. Karzai's government immediately begin demonstrating clear progress in five key areas: security, governance, reconciliation, economic development and engagement with Afghanistan's neighbors.

If those benchmarks aren't met, not only will Mr. Karzai's government fail, as Mr. Brown warned, it will have "forfeited its right to international support."

To his credit, there have been hints in recent days that Mr. Obama has been delivering a message similar to this amid the closed-door councils of international diplomacy.

But making such a public statement - and setting out clear benchmarks for Afghanistan to achieve in reforming its corrupt ministries and government institutions - would have a lot more impact on Afghanistan's feckless officials, including Mr. Karzai, whose glaring failures were indulged and papered over for years by the administration of former President George W. Bush.

The massive fraud in the August Afghan presidential election made it impossible to ignore the corrosive impact corruption has on our ability to achieve the goal of producing a stable society there. A runoff election between Mr. Karzai and his chief rival, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, offered at least a faint hope that some legitimacy could be restored. But Mr. Abdullah's withdrawal and the declaration of Mr. Karzai as the winner by default left Americans with no clear way to tell whether our continued involvement serves anything more than risking our soldiers' lives to protect crooks, petty warlords and drug runners.

That's why we need some concrete benchmarks by which we can tell whether Mr. Karzai is cleaning up his government or just stringing us along. Americans need to see the president is serious about holding Mr. Karzai's feet to the fire until genuine reforms are forthcoming if they are to support sending thousands more troops to such a vexing war.

Readers respond

Clean up the Afghan government? What Afghan government? Pack everything up and bring everyone home before year's end. It's done.

Mr. Rational

Afghanistan is corrupt to the core, too corrupt to risk so many American lives on. We need to bring down our involvement there because Afghanistan has failed to make appropriate reforms toward democracy.

John Henneman

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