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Karzai agrees to Afghan presidential runoff

The decision averts a constitutional crisis after an election marred by fraud. The leader will now square off against Abdullah Abdullah, his former foreign minister.

October 21, 2009|Paul Richter and Laura King

WASHINGTON AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — President Hamid Karzai's decision to yield to U.S. pressure and accept an election runoff has opened the way for the Obama administration to settle on a strategy for dealing with Afghanistan, including whether to approve the Pentagon's request to send thousands more troops to the fight.

The hard-won agreement reached Tuesday sets an 18-day clock ticking on a vote that many fear will also be marred by fraud and violence. But while acknowledging that the runoff Nov. 7 will probably be an imperfect exercise, U.S. and allied officials are hopeful that the showdown between Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah will produce a government that can be a credible partner in the struggle to stabilize the country.

In a sign of the administration's relief, President Obama swiftly telephoned Karzai to congratulate him. He said in a White House appearance that the decision reflected "a commitment to rule of law and an insistence that the Afghan people's will should be done."

The administration believes the runoff will provide whoever wins with at least a veneer of legitimacy. The rampant fraud that characterized the Aug. 20 balloting had further damaged Karzai's already poor reputation, making it politically awkward for the U.S. to pour more troops and money into Afghanistan.

Karzai's decision came after days of intense pressure from U.S. and allied officials. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spent about 20 hours with Karzai at a series of meetings from Friday to Monday. Even as Kerry and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry were urging Karzai to accept whatever findings came from the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which Monday invalidated nearly a million votes cast for Karzai, some Afghan allies were urging him to resist.

Kerry said Karzai's decision would "absolutely" provide important reassurance to Obama administration officials that they will have a credible partner. At the same time, the senator said in a telephone interview from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, "many other steps need to be taken to show that [the Afghans] are willing to have a comprehensive reform of their policies and their ministries."

Questions remain

Officials say other questions need answering before the administration can make its long-awaited decision on whether to drastically increase troop levels. Still to be judged, they say, is whether the next Afghan government will be honest and competent enough to build a capable domestic security force while expanding public services and the economy.

Karzai's decision comes at a time when Pentagon officials are feeling more confident that the White House is leaning toward accepting the recommendation of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, for reportedly 40,000 additional troops.

Officials who feared the administration was going to heavily rewrite the Afghanistan plan are now "feeling pretty good," a Defense official said. White House officials said that although a decision is not imminent, they do not believe it is necessary to wait until all the votes are counted and a new government installed.

The runoff agreement came 24 hours after the commission tossed out so many votes that the results deprived Karzai of what his campaign had earlier characterized as a solid first-round victory. A second round does not preclude a later agreement by Karzai and Abdullah to form a power-sharing government, an outcome the White House believes could convince Afghans that the government reflects their will.

But even without that step, administration officials hope the runoff will leave behind the stains of the August election.

"A second round, if it's reasonably fair, can undo a lot of the damage done by the irregularities in the first," said James Dobbins, a former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan who is now with the Rand Corp.

In announcing the runoff plans in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Karzai avoided any explicit reference to international auditors' findings of "significant" fraud in the initial balloting.

"This is for the good of our country," Karzai, looking pale but composed, told a packed news conference at the presidential palace.

Karzai is still considered likely to emerge the victor in fresh balloting; even the fraud-adjusted vote tally gave him a wide lead over Abdullah -- 48% to 32%. But the protracted battle over the recount was clearly a bruising one for the Afghan leader, a onetime Western favorite who has suffered a sharp fall from grace in recent years.

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