New Afghan Election, But Same Tough Issues For U.S.

President Hamid Kazai with Sen. John Kerry i

Sen. John Kerry looks on as Afghan President Hamid Karzai announces that he will accept a runoff election with his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
President Hamid Kazai with Sen. John Kerry

Sen. John Kerry looks on as Afghan President Hamid Karzai announces that he will accept a runoff election with his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The decision to hold a November runoff in the hotly disputed Afghan election may resolve some political tensions, but it presents some new challenges for the United States and its international partners in Afghanistan.

It also leaves open the question currently being considered by President Obama of whether to send more American troops to fight the eight-year war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Tuesday that he will accept the findings of a U.N.-backed watchdog commission that declared a third of his votes from the Aug. 20 election to be invalid because of fraud or irregularities.

The findings pushed Karzai's total below 50 percent of the vote, opening the way for a Nov. 7 runoff election between the incumbent and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister.

But key questions remain whether the Afghan government and the international community are prepared to handle the difficult logistics of carrying out another nationwide election in just over two weeks, and whether a runoff is likely to be any more honest than the widely discredited first vote.

Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who helped monitor the August election, says the danger is that the fraud may simply be more sophisticated this time.

"Instead of learning how to put better safeguards on the elections, the people who were perpetrating this may just give it the cosmetic touches that it needs to make it look legitimate," Weinbaum says.

Obama welcomed Karzai's decision, saying the Afghan leader was "ensuring a credible process for the Afghan people which results in a government that reflects their will."

Neither the president nor his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, addressed the question of whether the runoff will affect the administration's deliberations over whether to send tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, joining the 68,000 already there.

Gibbs told reporters that he expects a decision on troop levels "in the coming weeks," but he said it has not been determined whether Obama will wait for the results of the runoff before announcing his review of the military strategy in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, told reporters that the administration was not putting those discussions on hold. Speaking during a visit to Japan, Gates said, "We are not going to just sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul."

That view veered from one put forward by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said on Sunday that the administration would have to ensure that it had "a credible Afghan partner" in the government before deciding whether to send more troops.

Emanuel's comments may have been part of what U.S. officials said was a tough allied strategy amid the election crisis to push Karzai to accept a runoff or negotiate a coalition government with his presidential rivals.

U.S. officials said Karzai made his decision after intensive talks with Sen. John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also called Karzai to urge him accept a runoff.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that a runoff is logistically feasible, despite concerns that winter weather could block access to some of the more remote parts of the mountainous country.

Clinton noted that Afghan officials already have plans in place for running a second vote.

Observers familiar with Afghanistan say that barring an unusual early storm, most parts of the country should be accessible, even if election materials have to be transported by donkey.

Regarding concerns that fraud will be repeated in the runoff, analyst Karin von Hippel says the international community "could also be more sophisticated about preventing fraud." Von Hippel, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, helped monitor the August vote.

Weinbaum noted that some polling stations reported more votes than they had registered voters and claimed that 100 percent of the vote went for Karzai.

Von Hippel says authorities should set up security cameras at some polling places to monitor whether the flow of people in and out of the center matches the reported vote count.

Some observers think that Karzai is likely to win handily in a head-to-head runoff with Abdullah, given Karzai's strong support among his fellow Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.

Von Hippel says Karzai's potential strength in a one-on-one matchup may have been part of his calculation in deciding to accept a runoff.

"He may have figured that if it goes to a runoff, he can avoid making a costly deal with Abdullah," says von Hippel, noting that Karzai might have had to give up more power if he had had to form a coalition.

Beyond the politics is the question of how the Afghan voters will accept the idea of a runoff.

One voter quoted by von Hippel complained that the country has become "a political boxing ring." Another said, "I took a chance and voted the first time. I now have to do it again?"

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