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Afghan runoff election in disarray after challenger pulls out

Abdullah Abdullah, the only opponent to President Hamid Karzai, withdraws. He says Karzai rejected his demand to change the voting infrastructure to avoid fraud.

November 02, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The withdrawal Sunday of President Hamid Karzai's only rival in an election runoff essentially handed him another five-year term, but without the clear mandate U.S. officials had hoped would make Karzai an effective partner in the struggle to stabilize Afghanistan.

In an emotional speech before thousands of supporters, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said he had decided not to take part in the Nov. 7 poll because the government had rejected his demands for changes to prevent the type of rampant fraud that marred the voting in August and had made it so that a "transparent election is not possible."

The announcement plunged the country into uncharted legal and political territory, with no consensus on whether the runoff should still be held.

Karzai's aides said the campaign should continue, although they added that they would respect the decision of the country's Independent Election Commission, a body whose members are appointed by Karzai. The group is scheduled to convene today to reach a decision.

U.S. and other Western officials, who leaned heavily on Karzai to accept a runoff after the tainted election in August, are now pressing him and electoral officials to find a legally acceptable way to cancel the poll and declare Karzai the winner. Neither the U.S. nor the United Nations is prepared to risk more lives for an election with only one candidate, said a Western official familiar with the talks.

Early today, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Afghanistan to meet with Karzai and Abdullah, the Associated Press reported.

American and other Western officials are also encouraging Karzai to reach out across ethnic and factional lines to form a Cabinet that is willing to tackle corruption and improve governance. Many of them continue to hold out hope that Karzai will cut a deal with Abdullah to embrace reforms, bring the challenger into a government position or both. Such a settlement would bolster the legitimacy of Karzai's government, several said.

"He knows as well as anyone else does, even if he is crowned president, he cannot govern without Abdullah," said the official familiar with the talks, who requested anonymity because of their sensitivity.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released a statement that hinted at U.S. hope that Abdullah's coalition would have some voice in the government.

Clinton praised Abdullah, saying he ran a "dignified and constructive campaign that drew the support of Afghan people across the nation. We hope that he will continue to stay engaged in the national dialogue and work on behalf of the security and prosperity of the people of Afghanistan."

The election imbroglio has unfolded as President Obama considers whether to deepen U.S. involvement in the war, including deploying tens of thousands of additional troops as requested by his top military official in the region. A weak and discredited government in Kabul, the Afghan capital, would make it more difficult to persuade an already disillusioned American public and Congress to up the ante in a life-and-death commitment.

White House officials have debated whether to make the final decision on troop levels before or after the Afghan voting. If the election does not go forward, reasons for further delay might seem questionable.

"If anything, it will speed the debate up," said a U.S. Defense Department official. "Karzai is the guy. . . . There is nothing we can do about it."

Other military officials believe the White House has already settled on a timetable for making decisions and that Abdullah's withdrawal will have little effect on the timing. But how the events of the next few days play out could have a major effect on the substance of the strategy debate.

"I expect the president will make a decision within weeks," said senior Obama advisor David Axelrod in an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"As you know," Axelrod said, "he has gone through a very rigorous process because the goal here is not just to make an arithmetic judgment about the number of troops, but to make sure that we have the right strategy."

Several opposition lawmakers in Washington said Obama should make a quick decision on sending more troops. House Republican leader John Boehner said on CNN's "State of the Union" that Abdullah's announcement "says more about the fact that he knew he wasn't going to win."

"But that should not hamper our decision with regard to Afghanistan," he said.

U.N.-backed auditors threw out more than 1 million of the votes cast Aug. 20, including nearly a third of Karzai's tally. That left the president just short of the 50% plus 1 threshold required for an outright win and forced him into the runoff against Abdullah, his main challenger.

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