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."
U.S. officials, who have poured millions of dollars into the process, have publicly declared neutrality, an attempt to counter widespread perceptions that they are trying to influence the vote.
Tonight the U.S. embassy declined to confirm whether the meeting with Karzai took place, but issued a strong paper statement earlier in the day that seemed to come in direct response to the Independent Election Commission's decision to include fraudulent votes.
"The United States and the international community are looking to the Independent Electoral Commission to carry out its legal mandate to count all votes and to exclude all fraudulent votes," said Caitlin Hayden, the embassy's spokeswoman. "Anything less than rigorous vetting would call into question the credibility of the announced results."
Over the last week, Karzai's aides have privately grumbled about the process, accusing the United States of meddling and arguing that their own figures showed the president being reelected with at least 55 percent of the vote.
Karzai himself told the Le Figaro newspaper that the United States was trying to manipulate him.
"The Americans attack Karzai in an underhand fashion because they want him to be more tractable," he said, according to Reuters, referring to himself in the third person.
Arsala Jamal, the former governor of Khost province and an advisor to the Karzai campaign, did not deny that fraud had been committed in the election, but said it had been committed equally by all candidates.
"We are not ruling out fraud in this election. We are not saying it was 100 percent perfect elections, there were shortcomings. There were shortcomings from all quarters. We have filed dozens of complaints against Abdullah's camp," he told ABC News over the weekend.
But the Western officials, who spoke on condition they would not be identified, said the election data clearly indicated that the vast majority of fraud had been committed on Karzai's behalf.
The officials pointed to multiple ballot stations in Helmand and Kandahar whose results seemed to suggest fraud. In areas where turnout was reported to be very low, some polling stations reported turnout higher than 90 percent.
At one polling center in Helmand's Now Zad district, Karzai received exactly 2,750 votes. His opponents received zero.
"It was a free for all," one of the Western officials said when asked about the extent of the fraud.
On Saturday, the Independent Election Commission announced it was invalidating 447 polling stations out of more than 28,000, evidence that those within the commission who wanted to identify fraud had won a serious internal debate.
The stations were excluded, according to the Western officials, because they triggered one of three alarm bells: Too many votes were cast (that was partially because the commission's computers couldn't input a four-digit vote total, something that happened despite each polling station only receiving 600 ballots); a candidate received over 95 percent of the vote; the polling station never opened but reported results.
"We thought we had progress," one of the western officials said about the commission's decision to annul those results.
The commission's decision today to include fraudulent votes means they will have changed their criteria mid-stream. But it is not clear whether the results from the 447 polling stations already excluded will be reinserted into the tally.
The commission plans to release the final tally one day before or on the anniversary of the death of Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated in the days before 9/11. Abdullah was once one of his senior advisors, and some officials have said in the past they feared timing any result that favored Karzai to that date.
Abdullah himself said on Saturday that he could not necessarily control the reaction of his followers to an announcement result, although in English he urged them to be calm.
"I can't promise you that I will stop the people from participating or demonstrating or stop people from peacefully demonstrating," he said in Farsi. "The only thing which I ask people not to do is commit violence."