Afghanistan: Fraud, Troops and Joe Biden

There have been widespread allegations of fraud in the Afghanistan vote count, which has President Hamid Karzai leading. Election officials will soon announce whether President Karzai is the outright winner or if he must face the second-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah, in a runoff. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR news analyst Juan Williams about the political impact of events in Afghanistan and the role Vice President Biden is playing in creating a new strategy for the volatile country.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Sometime this weekend, election officials in Afghanistan are expected to announce the results of this summer's disputed presidential election. There have been widespread allegations of fraud in the vote count that has President Hamid Karzai leading. Election officials will announce whether President Karzai is the outright winner or if he has to face the second-place finisher, Abdullah Abdullah in a runoff.

The results are being closely watched in the United States. We're joined now by our friend, NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And we're awaiting official word later today, but there certainly have been indications that there's going to be a runoff. If that's the case, how does it affect some of the political calculations the Obama administration's making as they approach a decision on U.S. policy?

WILLIAMS: Well, the first thing is whether or not the runoff would in fact be verifiable, be corruption-free. The key part here for the Obama administration is how they view the Afghan government. Is it a stable partner worthy of their investing with? And by investing, of course, I mean American life as well as economic support. Versus an unreliable, corrupt partner, in part funded by a narco-state mentality, filled with drug dealers and the like, and without the popular support of the Afghan people.

And if they're unable, if the Afghan government, the Karzai government in specific, is unable to fight for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people versus the Taliban, then why should the U.S. further invest money and troops into Afghanistan?

Also, the question is whether an Afghan government is able to hold the loyalty of troops. Remember that part of the theory here is that the U.S. could train more Afghan troops to fight the Taliban and fight al-Qaida.

SIMON: Vice President Biden, reportedly, a number of places, has been openly skeptical of a counterinsurgency strategy that could commit more U.S. troops and treasure, for that matter, to Afghanistan. I know you've been looking into that. What are your sources telling you about the vice president's input and influence on this issue?

WILLIAMS: It's absolutely critical. In fact, usually Vice President Biden has lunch with President Obama on Fridays. This week he had it on Tuesday because of some travel. But what you see is that Vice President Biden is right in the middle of a mix that has General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, on one side - he has issued papers and generally been seen as requesting about 40,000 more troops - versus Vice President Biden, who's saying let's be very specific about what we're doing.

Famously, he has said at one meeting at the White House: We have $1 invested in Pakistan for every $30 we have invested in Afghanistan. And he says that ratio is out of balance. Pakistan is the country with nukes, and if the al-Qaida was to gain a foothold there strongly, there would be far greater a threat to U.S. security interests.

But Vice President Biden - to pick up on your theme, Scott - is the guy who's now on the cover of Newsweek, the cover of the New York Times, all about this debate. Arianna Huffington just recently called for him to resign if President Obama sends more troops. And you must remember that here in the United States political opposition to the war remains strong.

CBS - most recent CBS poll had only 37 percent of Americans supporting it. Vice President Biden has become a hero for those who want President Obama to pull U.S. forces back from Afghanistan. But the vice president's office, by the way, says to me he's not for cut and run. He just wants to do things more surgically and specifically.

SIMON: Yeah. And of course the vice president's the first person to say it's not my decision, under the...

WILLIAMS: That's right.

SIMON: We have a president.

WILLIAMS: He often points out that he's not running for president in 2016. He's here with this president and trying to be supportive and doing exactly what this president wants in terms of stirring the pot.

SIMON: Can we fairly judge what options President Obama seems to be weighing, the range of them, at this point?

WILLIAMS: Well, at the moment, lots of talk about whether or not he wants to sort of cut the baby in half here and the virtues...

SIMON: Like 20,000 troops...

WILLIAMS: Exactly. The thing is, you know, if you do the drones, the elite units going in towards Pakistan, then the question becomes are you in fact preparing the ground in Afghanistan for maybe the al-Qaida and the Taliban to move more aggressively back into Afghanistan instead of using Pakistan, the mountains of Pakistan, as a base, use Afghanistan as a base.

You might have civil war in the west and the northern parts of Afghanistan, with tribal rivalries reemerging in the absence of some sort of government. So you know, in many ways it's not just Vice President Biden. It's also Bob Gates, the defense secretary, who's a Republican and obviously in touch with the defense industry in this country.

So his decision and Vice President Biden's may have the greatest weight here. So it might be not just Biden versus McChrystal. It might be Biden and Gates counseling President Obama, as he has to approach a fast decision on what to do in Afghanistan.

SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks so much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Scott.

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