KABUL – Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decision to yield to U.S. pressure and accept an election runoff has opened the way for the Obama administration to settle on a strategy for dealing with the country, including whether to approve the Pentagon’s request to send thousands more troops to the fight.
The hard-won agreement reached Tuesday sets an 18-day clock ticking on a vote that many fear will be marred by fraud and violence. But while conceding that the runoff Nov. 7 will probably be an imperfect exercise, U.S. and allied officials are hopeful the showdown between Karzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah will produce a government that can be a credible partner in the struggle to stabilize the country.
In a sign of the administration’s relief, President Barack Obama swiftly telephoned Karzai to congratulate him. He said in a White House appearance that the decision reflected “a commitment to rule of law and an insistence that the Afghan people’s will should be done.”
The administration believes the runoff will provide whoever wins with at least a veneer of legitimacy. The rampant fraud that characterized the Aug. 20 balloting had further damaged Karzai’s already poor reputation, making it politically awkward for the U.S. to pour more troops and money into Afghanistan.
Karzai’s decision came after a days of intensive pressure from U.S. and allied officials. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spent around 20 hours with Karzai at a series of meetings between Friday and Monday. While Kerry and U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry were urging Karzai to accept whatever findings came from the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which Monday invalidated nearly a million votes cast for Karzai, some Afghan allies were urging him to resist.
Kerry said Karzai’s decision Tuesday would “absolutely” provide important reassurance to the administration that they will have a credible partner. At the same time, he said, “many other steps need to be taken to show that they are willing to have a comprehensive reform of their policies, and their ministries.”