KABUL, Afghanistan -- The Afghan government's appointee resigned Monday from the commission that's investigating allegations of fraud in the country's scandal-plagued Aug. 20 presidential election as the Obama administration struggles to craft a strategy to curb the Taliban-led insurgency.
Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai said "foreign interference" was the reasons for his resignation from the United Nations-sponsored Election Complaints Commission. His departure suggests that the panel could be prepared to toss out enough suspect votes to force President Hamid Karzai into a runoff in his quest for a second five-year term.
U.S. officials fear that a second round could see as much or even more malfeasance than the first round did, especially if it's held quickly, and a senior U.S. defense official warned Monday that the country's resurgent Islamic militants could launch a drive to derail a runoff that would be bloodier than the attacks, assassinations and intimidation that they staged against the election.
"No one is sure how the Taliban will influence this second round, but my guess is that they will make an all-out push," the official said.
One of Karzai's parliamentary supporters said he still expected the U.S.-backed Afghan president to win a second round against second-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who has strong support among the ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan rather than Karzai's dominant Pashtun tribe.
The ballot box-stuffing and other malfeasance of the preliminary vote has complicated the Obama administration's deliberations on whether the U.S. should increase its investments of troops, funds and prestige in a war that's becoming increasingly unpopular and distracting the White House and its congressional supporters from President Barack Obama's domestic political agenda.
The administration is split over a U.S. military plan to deploy 45,000 or more additional troops and redouble civilian aid programs, with opponents led by Vice President Joe Biden favoring a more limited strategy focused on disrupting and dismantling al Qaida, whose leaders are believed to be operating out of neighboring Pakistan.
Administration officials in both camps, however, agree that neither plan has much chance for success if the U.S. and its allies are saddled with a Kabul government that a majority of Afghans consider illegitimate, corrupt and incompetent.
Administration officials Monday said that given the likelihood of an eventual Karzai victory, the U.S. and its allies should press him to form a coalition government that would include Abdullah and some Western-educated technocrats and to crack down on rampant official corruption. Karzai, however, would be under pressure from his own supporters to reject such a foreign-imposed plan.
Barakzai, who was appointed to the Election Complaints Commission by Afghanistan's Supreme Court, which is comprised largely of Karzai loyalists, told McClatchy that he resigned out of frustration with what he called "foreign interference" in the ballot review process.
The results of the review are expected to be announced later this week, and a run-off would be scheduled for two weeks after the announcement.
Barakzai said he was unhappy with the large number of U.N. officials involved in the review, and that he hadn't been included enough in the commission's deliberations. He also said he felt that some of the commission's actions didn't comply with Afghan election laws. He declined to detail those concerns.
"Every day there were foreigners coming in, men and women, black and white," he said. "They were doing things that were against the electoral laws."
"Allegations of foreign interference on the ECC are absolute nonsense," countered Aleem Saddique, a U.N. spokesman. "The resignation of this . . . commissioner is regrettable. However, the vital work of the commission must continue. The Afghan people need to see an election outcome that faithfully reflects their will as soon as possible."
Barakzai was one of two Afghans on the panel. The United Nations appointed three foreign commissioners.
If enough questionable votes are thrown out, Karzai's preliminary tally of 54.6 percent of the vote could slip to 50 percent or below, forcing him into a runoff against Abdullah.
The senior U.S. defense official expressed concern, however, that the Taliban-led insurgency would stage an even bloodier effort to derail the runoff than it did for Aug. 20, when Islamic guerrillas staged more than 500 attacks the most in a single day of the eight-year war to dissuade people from voting.
The official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said that the 100,000-strong U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force and Afghan security forces are "basically ready to go do this again.
"We figure we'll get about two weeks to reset the security posture and support movement of ballot material the same as last time," he continued.
A Karzai campaign official said he expected a first-round victory for the president.
"We will make 50 percent plus one (vote) even when they take out suspicious votes. We are very confident of that," said Arsala Jamal. "The only thing that would change is if there is political pressure."
His comment appeared aimed at the U.S. and U.N., and many Karzai supporters might not accept a run-off prompted by the U.N. panel.
(Bernton reports for the Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
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