The United States and United Nations became so concerned about the legitimacy of the vote count in last month's Afghan election that they called an emergency meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai late today, criticizing a decision by the Independent Election Commission to count "knowingly" fraudulent votes. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry attended the meeting.
The meeting, according to a U.S. official and two Western officials in Kabul, came after the commission crossed a "red line," having reversed an earlier decision not to count fraudulent votes.
That reversal, the western officials said, came after the commission was "threatened," according to the western officials. They would not elaborate on who had delivered the threats.
The commission's decision is significant: The western officials estimated that the number of fraudulent votes could top 1 million, meaning that if they were thrown out, Karzai would almost certainly receive fewer than 50 percent of the vote, forcing him into a runoff with his main challenger, former Karzai minister Abdullah Abdullah.
By including the votes in a preliminary tally scheduled to released within the next two days, Karzai is guaranteed to eclipse 50 percent, the officials said. Most of the fraudulent ballots, they said, were cast for Karzai.
There was no indication of how Karzai responded to the meeting. Karzai's aides did not return late-night phone calls or texts from ABC News.
There was also no indication of whether the sudden and swift pressure from the international community would cause the commission to rethink its decision to include fraudulent ballots.
At stake is the outcome of a process that the United States had hoped would provide some stability to an increasingly violent Afghansitan.
Widespread allegations of fraud could rob the next government of a mandate at just the moment when Washington is considering sending thousands more troops into a country at its most violent point in eight years. The United States admits it needs a government seen as legitimate if it is going to bring some stability to Afghanistan.
"This period will define whether we have any chance of success in Afghansitan, or whether we throw that chance away," one of the western officials said.
The commission's decision to include fraudulent votes, assuming it stands, does not signify the end of the process. It will release a preliminary result that cannot be finalized until a separate group judges all fraud claims.
That second group -- the Election Complaints Commission -- has the authority to throw out as many ballots as it wishes, and could theoretically throw out all the likely fraudulent ballots included in the preliminary tally.
But the two Western officials feared that if the inclusion of fraudulent ballots in the preliminary tally pushed Karzai's total far above 50 percent, the Election Complaints Commission would find it extremely difficult politically to disqualify enough ballots to force a second round.
"It's a terrible scenario," one of the election officials said, calling the prospect of a foreign-led Election Complaints Commission essentially reversing the decision of a mostly Afghan Independent Election Commission the "worst possible outcome."