Page 2 of 2   <      

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.

Abdullah, who also received a call from Obama, scheduled a news conference for Wednesday. He had said that once a runoff was declared, he would be open to discussions about a coalition government. But Afghan and Western officials said that was unlikely, given Afghanistan's constitutional mandate for a runoff between the top two candidates if no one won more than 50 percent in the initial Aug. 20 vote.

Abdullah supporter Noor ul-Haq Ulumi, a member of parliament from Kandahar, said a runoff meant that "the country is going forward to security and stability, and that builds the trust of the people." He, like Abdullah, predicted a high turnout, adding that "the people who are in favor of a stable Afghanistan will definitely go and vote for a second time."

Hamidullah Tokhi, a lawmaker from Zabol province, said the outcome showed Afghans that the United States is not choosing Karzai. "Now it's clear to the people that the United States is not in favor of anyone, they want a free election," Tokhi said.

The crux of the dispute that riveted Kabul and Washington was whether Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, an organization widely seen as influenced by Karzai, would accept the results of the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission.

Last month, the Afghan election commission announced a preliminary tally giving Karzai 54.6 percent of the vote, with confirmation of his win awaiting only the results of the separate complaints body. In early October, word began to spread that the discovery of "ghost" polling stations -- where no voters had shown up but hundreds of votes were counted -- and widespread ballot-box stuffing might push Karzai below 50 percent, forcing a runoff with Abdullah, who had been given 28 percent.

On Thursday, the Obama administration learned that investigators were about to announce that Karzai's share of the vote, with illegal ballots thrown out, would fall short. But the Afghan election commission, which had to certify the new results, was refusing to do so.

Kerry's 'significant' role

Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had arrived in Afghanistan on Thursday night for meetings with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in the country, and a tour of U.S. installations. On Friday evening, he was dining with troops from Massachusetts when Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry told him of the brewing political crisis and asked whether he would accompany him to see Karzai. "We had a truncated session" with the troops "and went straight to the palace," Kerry said in a telephone interview from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. "And that's where it began."

Over the next four days, Kerry -- alone and with Eikenberry and others -- met repeatedly with Karzai. The two men had spent time together during Karzai's visits to Washington and the senator's previous trips to Afghanistan, and "Kerry became a very significant player in this process," in regular contact since Saturday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and national security adviser James L. Jones, another senior administration official said.

Karzai's case was simple, this official said as the discussions were underway. "He believes he won the election. He believes the disenfranchisement of a lot of voters was a plot against him."

At a two-hour session on Saturday afternoon, Kerry and Eikenberry listened to Karzai argue that the election had been unfairly taken away from him and that the criteria used by the complaints panel to reject the votes of a million Pashtuns, the president's base, in southern Afghanistan were invalid.

Saturday evening, they returned to the palace for a five-hour session in which Eide and complaints commission officials explained their methodology. It was agreed that the experts would return Sunday for further explanation, while Kerry flew to Kandahar and Helmand provinces to be briefed on operations there. On Sunday night, he and Eikenberry again met with Karzai, this time alongside officials from the Afghan election commission. The meeting did not go well and ended with Kerry's promise to return again Monday, if necessary, after he made a trip to Pakistan.

"It was important to work through these differing perceptions and points of view," Kerry said later. Karzai's complaints were "always under the umbrella that he felt very wronged by this process. He still feels that he won."

At the administration's request, Kerry went back to Kabul, arriving at 5 p.m. and heading straight for the palace. After two hours, it appeared agreement had been reached. Kerry and Eikenberry called Washington, and Clinton emerged from a State Department meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to say that she was "encouraged at the direction that the situation is moving" and that she expected a Karzai announcement Tuesday. The Kabul news conference was scheduled.

On Tuesday morning, Kerry and Eikenberry met with Abdullah and returned to the palace for Karzai's announcement.

When it finally came, the president's supporters said they did not fear a new election. "Absolutely, this time, we will win by a very large margin," said Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council. "Last time, there were 42 candidates. Some of the votes went to them. This time, those votes will come to the president."

Partlow reported from Kabul. Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington also contributed to this report.

<       2

© 2009 The Washington Post Company