Afghanistan in limbo

Karzai challenger prepares to drop out of presidential race

By Pamela Constable and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 1, 2009

KABUL -- The top challenger to President Hamid Karzai in the Nov. 7 election prepared Saturday to withdraw from the race, complicating President Obama's deliberations over whether to expand the war effort in Afghanistan at a critical moment.

Aides to Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, indicated that their candidate would clarify his intentions at a meeting Sunday of supporters from across the country. A decision to leave the race could make it more difficult for Obama to send additional U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan if the next government is not accepted by the Afghan electorate as a result.

Although advisers said Abdullah has yet to make up his mind, they suggested that Karzai effectively pushed him from the race by declining to fire the country's top election official, who oversaw the flawed first round in August, and take other steps to ensure a fair vote. A U.N.-backed audit of the first-round balloting found that nearly one in three votes cast for Karzai was fraudulent.

Obama administration officials played down Abdullah's threat, calling it a personal calculation that would probably have little bearing on whether a majority of Afghans accept the result of the vote. Abdullah's name will appear on the already-printed ballots regardless of his decision, and his absence could ensure a smoother campaign and vote count if he declines to condemn Karzai as he drops out.

"I think it is his decision to make," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a news conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "But I do not think it affects the legitimacy. When President Karzai accepted a runoff without knowing what the outcome would be, that bestowed legitimacy from that moment."

After several weeks of deliberations, Obama is in the final stage of deciding how to proceed in Afghanistan, where the United States is waging an eight-year-old war he has called one of "necessity." Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has requested tens of thousands of additional troops to support a counterinsurgency strategy to weaken the Taliban and protect the Afghan population. Some senior Obama advisers, however, are arguing for a plan focused more narrowly on defeating al-Qaeda than on fighting an indigenous insurgency and helping to build an effective Afghan state.

The legitimacy of the Afghan government is essential to McChrystal's broader strategy, which requires not only a militarily effective partner in Kabul but also a government that the majority of Afghans believes is a viable alternative to the Taliban. Karzai was favored to win a second five-year term, but a withdrawal by Abdullah could leave many Afghans dissatisfied with the next government.

"We don't want to boycott, but Mr. Karzai has not accepted any conditions, so he left us with no other choice," said one member of Abdullah's political team, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Abdullah has not yet announced his plans. "There is no guarantee that a second round would be free and fair. It would only create more problems than it solves."

A question of legality

U.S. officials had pressed Karzai to accept the runoff after the flawed Aug. 20 vote, and he reluctantly agreed, although there was widespread concern among Afghans that the second round would be marred by fraud and even more vulnerable to insurgent attacks than the first poll. This week, the Taliban killed five U.N. workers in Kabul and threatened to sabotage the Nov. 7 vote.

Even after hundreds of thousands of votes for Karzai were found invalid and discounted after the first round, the president won more than 49 percent of the vote, while Abdullah won less than 30 percent. A senior Obama administration official involved in the policy review said of Abdullah on Saturday: "It's not surprising he's not going to contest an election he wasn't going to win."

"This is not a challenge in any way to the process of choosing the next Afghan president. This is politics," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about White House thinking, citing the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue. "However this shakes out, it does not affect the legitimacy of the process in the way, for example, that there were questions when Karzai was considering whether or not to accept the runoff."

Aides to Karzai said Saturday that Abdullah has no right to boycott the election and that if he does, it will be up to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to decide what to do. But they also said he is legally allowed to resign from the race, in which case Karzai would automatically win.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company