Afghanistan braces for round 2 of marathon election


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

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

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.


“The challenges of holding this election in an
increasingly difficult security environment simply cannot be understated,”
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, said Tuesday in Kabul.

To deliver a credible result, a runoff also must avoid the
industrial-strength fraud that tainted the first round despite the presence of
international observers, two review commissions and other safeguards that could
be hard to replicate on two weeks’ notice.

“The important thing for us is that the election should
be fair, and fraud should be prevented,” said Sayed Fazel Sancharaki,
Abdullah’s campaign spokesman.

Given the international pressure on Karzai to agree to a
runoff, one also runs the risk of tainting the winner by reinforcing the common
impression that foreigners have decided the outcome in advance.

At the news conference Tuesday at the Presidential Palace in
Kabul, Karzai was joined by Kerry, U.N. special representative Kai Eide and
diplomats from the United States, Britain and France.

The gathering was intended as a show of unity after weeks of
strained relations between Western nations and Karzai over the vote fraud
documented by the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission.
However, the image of the Afghan president flanked by so many Westerners also
could reinforce Taliban efforts to portray Karzai as a puppet of a foreign

“This is an American process, and mainly the election
has taken place in Washington,” Zabiullah Mujahid, who speaks to reporters
on behalf of the Taliban, said last week.

Finally, although all signs point to a Nov. 7 runoff, it’s
still possible that Karzai and Abdullah could agree to forgo that and instead
form a unity government and commit to some of the political reforms that
Abdullah and the West have sought.

A U.S. official in Washington, who spoke anonymously due to
the sensitivity of his position, said that the Obama administration remains
warm to that idea, and private talks could unfold in the days ahead.

In Kabul, however, there’s little public support for
abandoning a runoff, and Karzai said Afghan law doesn’t allow a coalition
government, so one would have no legitimacy.