KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, ISTANBUL, TURKEY, AND WASHINGTON — A U.N.-backed watchdog group cited "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" as it ordered a partial recount Tuesday of Afghanistan's deeply troubled presidential election, dealing a new blow to the Obama administration's hope that the balloting would help stabilize the country.
The finding by the Electoral Complaints Commission in effect rendered meaningless the release of an almost complete tally hours later that for the first time put President Hamid Karzai over the 50% threshold he needs to achieve a first-round victory in the Aug. 20 vote.
Karzai said previously he would accept the commission's verdict on the vote, but he has also complained angrily that Western governments -- in particular that of the United States -- had always wanted to see a runoff election between him and his chief rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
The president's lieutenants angered the Obama administration last month when they issued a virtual declaration of victory within hours of the vote, saying it appeared that there would be no need for a runoff.
On Tuesday, the U.S. administration endorsed a rigorous investigation of reports of election fraud, even as officials acknowledged that the process would delay a claim to another term by Karzai, whose ties to the Obama administration have been marked by friction.
"A legitimate process is vital to us, and vital to any kind of partnership that we would have with the government going forward," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, identifying a believable outcome as vital, despite any effect it might have on U.S. relations with the Afghan government.
"That's our bottom line, that we end up with a credible result at the end," Kelly said.
Western diplomats expressed private concern that the coming weeks could be volatile now that hopes for a clear-cut outcome have been dashed.
"It's not a worst-case scenario, but it could go in that direction," said a Western diplomat who was not authorized to discuss the disputed vote and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Many in the international community had hoped the balloting would be a major step toward creating a stable democracy in a country battered by decades of war. A widely accepted Afghan government is viewed, in turn, as a crucial bulwark against a Taliban-led insurgency that is daily honing its lethal effectiveness.
The allegation of extensive voting fraud has raised doubts about whether Karzai, should he win, would emerge with the necessary legitimacy. And the controversy may widen the gulf between Karzai, who has increasingly tried to position himself as an independent leader, and the United States, which will have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year and has not ruled out sending more.
This year has been the war's deadliest for U.S. forces. On Tuesday, the American military said four U.S. soldiers died in an attack in Kunar province, bordering Pakistan.
Such clusters of troop fatalities, once highly unusual, are becoming a grimly quotidian feature of the conflict, soon to enter its ninth year.
Despite insurgent threats, the vote itself went relatively peacefully, but in the intervening weeks, the focus has shifted to mounting allegations of fraud, which sharpened Tuesday with word of the recount ordered by the Electoral Complaints Commission, the United Nations-backed body that ultimately will be responsible for certifying the vote.
"In the course of its investigations, the ECC has found clear and convincing evidence of fraud in a number of polling stations," the group said in a statement.
It ordered an audit of all votes in polling stations where more than 600 people -- considered the acceptable maximum -- voted, and for any polling locale where any candidate received more than 95% of the vote.
Later in the day, Afghan election officials reported that with almost 92% of the vote counted, Karzai was polling 54.1%, more than he would need to avoid a runoff. Abdullah, who had polled nearly even with the president in early returns, trailed with 28.3%.
The recount could take up to three months, election officials said. That set the stage for not only a lengthy bout of political paralysis, but stoked fears of ethnically motivated violence by supporters of the two main contenders. Karzai is a Pashtun, the country's largest ethnic group; Abdullah is identified with the Tajik minority of northern Afghanistan.
The commission's order did not say how many suspect ballots would be reexamined, but some of the most serious fraud allegations come from the south and east, which are dominated by Pashtuns.
According to complainants, a number of polling stations in those areas reported 100% of the votes had been cast for the Afghan leader, often providing tallies in suspiciously round numbers such as 200 or 500.