Afghanistan's Karzai accepted runoff election only after hours of tense talks

Afghanistan's voters went to the polls on Aug. 20, 2009, for the nation's second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Two months later, Afghanistan's election commission ordered a runoff election for Nov. 7 after a fraud investigation invalidated nearly a million of President Hamid Karzai's votes.
By Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

After nearly 20 hours of tense, exhausting talks over four days, Sen. John F. Kerry was convinced by midday Tuesday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had accepted the need for a runoff election. But as dignitaries and reporters gathered at the presidential palace in Kabul for the 1 p.m. announcement, Karzai was still not ready.

While the world waited, Karzai and Kerry took a long walk through the secluded palace grounds. As they passed among the rosebushes and toured the presidential mosque, Karzai reiterated his conviction that he had been cheated out of a legitimate victory. The Massachusetts Democrat restated his case that Karzai had to put his country first and that it would be hard, maybe impossible, for Afghanistan -- or the United States -- to move ahead without a second round.

"We talked about a lot of things -- the way forward, personal things," Kerry said later. At 4:30, an unsmiling Karzai finally appeared before the waiting cameras to endorse a Nov. 7 runoff between him and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Resolution of the high political drama in Kabul, the culmination of days of intense pressure on Karzai by the Obama administration and its NATO allies, allows the White House to return to its deliberations over how to proceed in the faltering Afghanistan war. President Obama, who had not spoken to Karzai during the election talks, telephoned his congratulations and "the American people's appreciation for this step."

"President Karzai, as well as the other candidates," Obama told reporters, "have shown that they have the interests of the Afghan people at heart."

Senior administration officials were quick to acknowledge that the end of the runoff dispute was only one step on a long road. The new election, to be held as the harsh Afghan winter begins, faces perils ranging from Taliban attacks to a repeat of the first-round fraud that resulted in Karzai's accumulating nearly a million illegal votes, according to a U.N.-backed panel that this week stripped him of a preliminary majority.

Even if the runoff proceeds smoothly and Karzai wins, as widely anticipated, he remains, in the Obama administration's view, a less-than-ideal partner, unable or unwilling to end the corruption and inefficiency that have marked his five years as president.

White House discussions on whether to deploy the tens of thousands of troops requested by the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan will continue for several weeks. Whatever Obama decides will be criticized by many in Congress and among the public, whose support for his handling of the eight-year-old war has been declining rapidly.

But at the very least, the administration has cleared the most immediate obstacle before it. "If you take a step back and consider our interests here," a senior administration official said, "there is one overarching one -- that our partner in Kabul be seen as legitimate."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday that the administration was moving toward a decision on its Afghanistan strategy and that military operations were ongoing. U.S. soldiers, he said, are "not all just staying in their tents while we wait the outcome of the election."

'Time to move forward'

Flanked by Kerry, U.N. special envoy Kai Eide and the U.S., French and British ambassadors, Karzai called on Afghans "to change this into an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and determination to move this country forward and participate in the new round of elections." But while he called the results of the fraud inquiry "legitimate" and "legal," Karzai indicated that he still had suspicions about whether valid votes were thrown out.

"People, the voters, are not blamed for it. Why their votes were disrespected should be deeply investigated," he said. "But this is not the right time to discuss investigations. This is the time to move forward to civility and a national unity." As Eide spoke about looking forward to a fair race, Karzai interjected: "And then we must reach a result."

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