KABUL, Afghanistan – The United States and other powers struggled Saturday to persuade Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai to accept a deal to resolve the dispute over the country’s tainted presidential election and avert a political crisis that could spark civil unrest and jeopardize the U.S.-led fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.
The Afghan leader’s closest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, told U.S. officials earlier this week that he’d agree to a deal under certain conditions, said three U.S. officials who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Under the plan, Karzai would accept the fact that when fraudulent votes are thrown out, he failed to win more than half the vote in the Aug. 20 election. In return, Abdullah, the second-place finisher, would forgo a runoff by withdrawing and endorsing a Karzai-led unity government that included some of his allies, the officials said. Karzai also would have to pursue key political reforms to root out official corruption and improve public services.
“If you can mediate a settlement which leads to a stronger and more unified government, our sense is that that would be a means of garnering the most significant support by the Afghan people and enhancing the perceived legitimacy of that government,” said a senior Obama administration official in Washington.
The war in Afghanistan entered its ninth year this month, with U.S. commanders acknowledging that the 100,000-strong, U.S.-led international contingent and Afghan security forces are at risk of losing. A recent U.S. intelligence assessment estimated that there now are at least 25,000 full-time Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan, 20 percent more than there were a year ago.
A stable Kabul government is crucial to President Barack Obama’s efforts to reformulate his Afghan war strategy. Officials led by Vice President Joe Biden favor shifting the focus to decapitating al-Qaida in neighboring Pakistan, but top U.S. military commanders are seeking as many as 80,000 additional U.S. troops to help stabilize Afghanistan and double the size of the Afghan army.
Karzai, however, appeared to be digging in his heels Saturday, giving no indication that he’s willing to accept a decision expected today from the United Nations Election Complaints Commission that could toss out as many as 1.5 million questionable votes for him. That would drive his preliminary tally of 54.6 percent below the 50 percent mark and require a runoff.
Karzai’s refusal to accept the EEC’s decision, perhaps by turning to the country’s Independent Election Commission, whose members he appointed, or to its Supreme Court, which he dominates, could ignite a potentially violent backlash by Abdullah’s supporters, the bulk of whom are Tajiks and other ethnic minorities who dominate Kabul and northern Afghanistan.
“The best possible outcome at this point is (for Karzai) to accept a runoff and let Abdullah concede with a deal,” a U.S defense official said Saturday.
Karzai, however, is under pressure from his supporters, mostly members of his dominant Pashtun ethnic group, to claim victory. His campaign staff alleges that any tally of 50 percent or less would be due to “foreign interference” in the commission, whose members include three U.N.-appointed Westerners.
“They (the complaints commission) are under pressure, and they are listening to the people who are putting pressure on them,” Moen Marastyal, a member of the Afghan parliament, told McClatchy.