White House, key Democrat turn up heat on Karzai

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 18, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- As two commissions reviewing the allegations of fraud in Afghanistan's August 20 presidential election haggled in Kabul Sunday, a top Obama administration official and a senior Senate Democrat publicly turned up the heat on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to find a credible end to the electoral dispute.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on CNN that President Barack Obama wouldn't make a decision on his military commanders' request for as many as 80,000 additional American troops in Afghanistan until the administration is convinced that the country has a credible central government.

"It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop level if, in fact, you haven't done a thorough analysis of whether, in fact, there's an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that the U.S. troops would create and become a true partner in governing the Afghan country," Emanuel said.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who's visiting Afghanistan, told CNN that, "It would be entirely irresponsible for the president of the United States to commit more troops to this country when we don't even have an election finished."

Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, has been skeptical of the request from Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, for more American troops to support a counter-insurgency strategy to combat the Taliban-led insurgency by safeguarding the population, strengthening the Afghan government, improving public services and enlarging the Afghan security forces.

On Sunday, however, Kerry suggested that he's open to supporting McChrystal's plan -- but only if there's a government in Kabul that's willing to do its part to improve the lot of the Afghan people.

"Those are critical components of counterinsurgency strategy," said Kerry. "It would be very hard, I think, for the president to make a commitment to X number of troops, whatever it might be, or to a new strategy, without knowing that all of the components of the strategy are indeed capable of being achieved."

In Kabul, meanwhile, the United Nations-sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission and the Afghan Independent Election Commission, which is dominated by Karzai supporters, haggled for most of Sunday over the methodology the EEC used to investigate allegations of ballot box stuffing and other fraud in the August election.

Two administration officials, both speaking on the condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to speak publicly, told McClatchy Sunday that the U.N. commission has concluded that more than 75 percent of the 1.5 million questionable ballots it's reviewed were fraudulent votes for Karzai.

They said the EEC has concluded that a complete recount would find more than enough fraudulent Karzai votes to drop his preliminary tally of 54.6 percent below the 50 percent mark and require a runoff election with second-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah.

As McClatchy reported Sunday, Abdullah told U.S. officials last week that under certain conditions he'd agree to forgo a runoff by withdrawing and endorsing a Karzai-led unity government that included some of his allies. Such a deal, however, would require Karzai to agree to make reforms and accept the fact that he failed to win more than half the vote in August.

So far, however, despite pressure from the U.S., its allies and the U.N., Karzai hasn't agreed to such a deal or to a run-off election, despite the fact that he'd be favored to win a two-way election against Abdullah.

Karzai is under pressure from his supporters, mostly members of his dominant Pashtun ethnic group, to claim victory. His campaign staff has alleged that any tally of 50 percent or less would be due to "foreign interference" in the EEC, whose members include three U.N.-appointed Westerners.

If a run-off were declared, Afghan officials would have several options:

-- Try to hold the election within two weeks, deal with the risks and shortcomings and try to ensure that it produces an undisputed and legitimate winner.

-- Abdullah could withdraw his candidacy in exchange for concessions from Karzai.

-- Postpone the election until next summer, and have some sort of interim government in the meantime

Any deal with Abdullah, however, could compel Karzai to renege on promises of positions and influence he's made to the warlords and ethnic power barons who oversaw the ballot box stuffing on his behalf. In retaliation, those men could begin supporting the Taliban-led insurgency.

(Bernton, of The Seattle Times, reported from Kabul; Walcott reported from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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