KABUL — Now comes the hard part.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under heavy pressure from the Obama administration, its allies and the United Nations, Tuesday accepted a final election tally that stripped him of hundreds of thousands of questionable votes in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 election and agreed to a Nov. 7 runoff with the second-place finisher, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
"We believe the decision is legitimate, legal and according to the constitution of Afghanistan," Karzai told a news conference at the Presidential Palace. "We are waiting to see our people ... go cast their votes."
However, in Afghanistan, where the real bargaining often begins after a deal is done, that's one small step in a huge undertaking that American officials hope will produce a new government that most Afghans will accept as legitimate, and one that will crack down on the rampant corruption and incompetence that have hampered the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.
The success or failure of a runoff will play a large part in determining how President Barack Obama decides to move forward in Afghanistan. His top military commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is seeking as many as 80,000 additional American troops to improve security and train Afghan forces, but top administration officials have warned that Obama isn't likely to send them unless he's convinced that the U.S. has a credible partner in Kabul.
"This is a reflection of a commitment to the rule of law, an insistence that the Afghan people's will should be done," Obama told reporters in the White House after he called Karzai. "And so I expressed the American people's appreciation for this step."
The Taliban are less appreciative. Last week, a Taliban spokesman told McClatchy Newspapers that his group would try to disrupt a new election, and the planned second-round vote will require a repeat of the massive military mobilization that supported the $300 million first round — this time on short notice as the winter snows approach and travel becomes more difficult.
Such a mobilization could be undertaken in the next two weeks, but it would require U.S., NATO and Afghan troops to divert from fighting an insurgency that's steadily expanded through much of Afghanistan, said Western military officials.