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Karzai voiced doubts about runoff until last moment

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."

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.

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