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U.S. says credible partner in Afghanistan is crucial

As the presidential election dispute drags on, White House officials say Afghan leaders must form a stable government that the public sees as credible and legitimate.

October 19, 2009|Peter Nicholas and Laura King

WASHINGTON AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Before President Obama commits additional troops to Afghanistan, the U.S. needs assurances that Afghan leaders preside over a stable government that is legitimate in the eyes of its citizens, top Democratic officials said in TV appearances Sunday.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, on CNN's "State of the Union," said the overriding question facing the Obama administration is whether it has "a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need."

The White House is in the midst of a full-scale review of its strategy in Afghanistan. Options include adding tens of thousands of troops in a renewed bid to stabilize the country, as U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wants, or narrowing the mission to focus on subduing the Taliban. The White House has devoted five meetings to its Afghan review, with more scheduled over the next two weeks, Emanuel said.

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is visiting Afghanistan, endorsed the White House's approach, saying Sunday that it would be premature to deploy more troops without a clear picture of the nation's overall political condition. Kerry held talks with McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, and also met with officials in Pakistan.

"I don't see how President Obama can make a decision about the committing of our additional forces or even the further fulfillment of our mission that's here today without an adequate government in place or knowledge about what that government is going to be," Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "So there's some very fundamental questions that have to be answered about the status of the Afghan government."

That status is still up in the air. Preliminary results showed President Hamid Karzai winning a majority of votes in the Aug. 20 election, but the results were tainted by fraud.

A U.N.-backed commission's audit of the vote has been essentially completed, according to officials familiar with the recount process. But a separate Afghan-appointed election panel is disputing the methodology. Public disclosure of the results has been repeatedly delayed.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Sunday that the disputed election should not be an excuse for the White House to drag out its review.

"At some point, deliberation begins to look more like indecisiveness which then becomes a way of emboldening our enemies and allies and causing our allies to question our resolve," he said on "Face the Nation."

Western diplomats in Kabul, the Afghan capital, say there are growing fears Karzai will not accept the results if it is found, as appears likely, that his vote total has slipped below the majority he needs to avoid a runoff once fraudulent ballots are discarded.

Behind-the-scenes talks aimed at getting the Afghan leader to agree in advance to accept the outcome of the recount, based on a statistical sampling of suspect ballots, have so far been unsuccessful.

Most of the diplomats involved have refused to comment on the substance of their discussions with Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. But one envoy, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, spoke Sunday of the international community's mounting frustration.

"It seems that not everybody is ready to accept the results," Kouchner told reporters in Kabul, without naming either Karzai or Abdullah.

Abdullah has said repeatedly that the preliminary results, giving Karzai more than 54% of the votes to his own 28%, were based on massive fraud.

On Sunday, his deputy campaign manager, Saleh Mohammad Registani, suggested the Afghan leader had engineered the delay in announcing the audit results. "He is the obstacle," Registani said.

A Karzai campaign spokesman, Wahid Omar, denied that the president was exerting any improper influence.

Because of the enormous logistical difficulties of holding a fresh election before winter sets in, diplomats have proposed various formulas to Karzai, including some form of power-sharing with the Abdullah camp. But they have emphasized that no agreement can be made final unless the president accepts the findings of the vote audit.

Three of the Electoral Complaints Commission's five appointees are foreigners chosen by the U.N.. One of the two Afghan appointees, Mustafa Barakzai, quit the panel last week, citing "foreign interference" in the investigation.

The main Afghan elections body, the Independent Election Commission, is thought to be influenced by Karzai despite its name and its pledges of impartiality.

Whichever way the election is resolved, Afghans have to perceive the result as valid, the White House says. A government that lacks credibility, it says, cannot be a stable partner for the West. Emanuel told "Face the Nation" that two potential outcomes of the election dispute are a runoff or a settlement between candidates.

He said that "what's most important about that process is that there's a credibility and a legitimacy to the government at the end of that process. So which road they choose, that's up to them. It must be legitimate and credible in the eyes of the Afghan people."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

laura.king@latimes.com

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