KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President President Hamid Karzai was expected to announce Tuesday his acceptance of a U.N.-backed fraud audit reducing his vote in the August election to less than 50 percent, but it wasn't clear if he'd consent to a deal with his chief rival to forge a national unity government and forgo a second-round runoff, U.S. officials said Monday.
Karzai was expected to make his announcement at a Kabul news conference with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, who's been involved in an intense U.S.-led effort to pressure Karzai into dropping his objections to the United Nations-sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission's fraud audit.
As part of the full-court diplomatic press, the White House said it wouldn't consider a request by U.S. military commanders for as many as 80,000 additional troops for Afghanistan until it was convinced that Afghanistan had a credible government.
The prospect that Karzai might reject the EEC's audit had threatened to drive Afghanistan deeper into crisis as the Obama administration struggles to re-craft a war strategy to reverse the growing Taliban-led insurgency and stem the bloodiest violence in the country since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Two U.S. officials in Washington, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, said that Karzai was expected to accept the audit results at a news conference with Kerry on Tuesday.
However, they said they didnt know whether he'd agreed to embrace the offer by the second-place finisher, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, to forgo a runoff and form a new unity government.
Abdullah told U.S. diplomats last week that he'd drop out of the race if Karzai accepted the audit findings, agreed to form a national unity government that included some Abdullah allies and pledged to pursue reforms that would dilute the presidency's power, including a change to permit the popular election of provincial governors.
"We would like to see a coalition government, but it's up to him (Karzai)," said one U.S. official. "From our standpoint, having him respect the election process will be significant. And it speaks to the credibility of the entire process: that an executive is subject to checks and balances."
Some experts, however, were deeply skeptical of the prospects for any government led by Karzai, whose first five-year term has been marred by massive incompetence, nepotism and corruption fueled by drug smuggling and the billions of dollars in foreign reconstruction aid that's poured into one of the world's poorest nations.
"I don't think there is a place we can go from here that's good," said Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University. "This is a war that we can't win with this partner."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday alluded to Karzai's expected acceptance of the fraud audit, saying, "I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days."
Speaking at a press conference with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Clinton declined to provide details, but said she was "encouraged at the direction the situation is moving."
The U.N.-backed Election Complaints Commission's audit released Monday stripped hundreds of thousands of voters from Karzai, confirming massive ballot box-stuffing and other malfeasance — mostly on the Afghan leader's behalf — in the second presidential election in the country's history.
The audit dropped Karzai's vote tally from a preliminary total of 54.6 percent to 48.2 percent, according to an analysis by Democracy International, an organization that has been observing the election on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Under Afghan law, a run-off is required if no candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote.
Karzai resisted the audit's findings, which were finalized late last week, apparently determined to cinch a first-round victory in order to retain the support of ethnic warlords and power barons who engineered the ballot-box stuffing on his behalf in the expectation of receiving government positions and influence.
There were fears that Karzai's opponents, mostly leaders of the sizeable ethnic minorities, would see his refusal to accept the findings as tantamount to an illegal retention of power, raising the threat of ethnic strife. Karzai is a Pashtun, the largest ethnic group, and so are most of his backers.
Intense international pressure built on Karzai to back down. He received telephone calls over the weekend from Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and met separately with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
Karzai met four times with Kerry, including two lengthy dinners, on Sunday and Monday, according to Kerry aides.
While Karzai appeared ready to accept the fraud audit, the crisis has done considerable damage.
The spectacle of foreign powers so deeply involved in Afghan politics has played into the hands of the Taliban, which has gained support by portraying Karzai's administration as corrupt and a puppet of the United States.
Georgetown's Fair questioned why Taliban leaders would accept an offer of peace negotiations from any government led by Karzai.
"This solution does not fix the underlying credibility problem of Karzai," she said.
Moreover, the Taliban-led insurgents have vowed to disrupt any runoff with what some U.S. defense officials fear could be a campaign of violence of greater intensity than was launched against the first round.
The fraud audit involved sampling a portion of questionable votes from more than 300 polling sites, and then using those findings to determine how many fraudulent votes were included in a larger pool of more than 3,000 polling sites.
The Electoral Complaints Commission's findings were given to the Independent Election Commission, the country's top election body, whose members were appointed by Karzai and must certify a final vote tally. In a letter Sunday to the Independent Election Commission, the Canadian chairman of the EEC, Grant Kippen, left no doubt that the audit findings should be figured into the final vote tally, writing "ORDERS" in capital letters.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement Monday urging that the fraud audit orders be implemented "with all due speed."
The Independent Election Commission, however, didn't say when a final vote tally would be announced.
The fraud audit will be reviewed and discussed on Tuesday, and there have been questions about the methodology used to calculate the percentage of questionable votes being deducted, said a commission spokesman.
If the Afghan Independent Election Commission declares a run-off, Karzai supporters have said they'd ask Afghanistan's Supreme Court to annul the decision, charging foreign interference in the election process.
The allegation of foreign interference in a country that has suffered it for centuries has stoked tensions around the country.
"I have spoke to a lot of people throughout Afghanistan, and they are ready for action, and they believe we are headed for a crisis," said Mohammad Anwar, a Karzai supporter who is a Parliament member from war-torn southern Helmand Province.
Under Afghan law, a run-off would have to be held two weeks after the final vote tally was announced, but that would be extremely difficult because of cold weather, insurgent attacks and the sheer logistics of holding the vote.
Landay and Strobel reported from Washington. Bernton, of The Seattle Times, is in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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