As debate continues over the future of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, focus on rescuing the country's political legitimacy is intensifying as the commission investigating the fraud-filled Aug. 20 Afghan election appears poised to call for a runoff.
Administration sources believe that President Hamid Karzai will receive under 50 percent of the vote – likely around 48 percent, sources say -- when the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which has been reviewing fraudulent ballots, issues its report Saturday.
The finding would trigger a runoff between Karzai and his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.
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"It is likely that [the ECC] will find President Karzai got very close to 50 percent," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told CNN today. "So, I think one can conclude that the likelihood of him winning a second round is probably pretty high."
Administration sources tell ABC News that while several key Afghan political figures have committed to supporting a possible runoff election, they have yet to hear a response from the most important person – Karzai himself.
In Kabul, U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry has been urging Karzai to take action to improve his legitimacy, but so far Eikenberry's efforts have been met with resistance.
"The election was good and fair and worthy of praise, not of scorn, which the election received from the international media," Karzai told ABC News' Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" on Oct. 13. "That makes me very unhappy. That, rather, makes me angry."
As just one example of the pressure Karzai is under, Clinton indicated today that preparations are being made for a runoff election whether Karzai will support it or not.
"The ballots have been printed and certainly the military, through NATO and through our own troops, is looking at how you would secure such a second round," she told CNN.
But a second round of voting also faces challenges of its own, including impending winter weather that could make it difficult to hold a nationwide vote.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has reportedly been poring over weather maps for months and is convinced that only small parts of the north will be too snowy for people to vote in the first week of November -- the target date for a runoff. But that could be wishful thinking.
Afghan election officials could also drag their heels on organizing a second ballot, since Afghan election law does not require the IEC to act within a certain number of days. If the commission delays enough -- or if Karzai tells them to delay -- it may be impossible to hold a runoff before the winter.
Officials say it's also imperative that the root causes of voter fraud and abuse that plagued the first vote be resolved before a runoff. Peter Galbraith, the former U.S. deputy to the U.N. senior representative in Afghanistan, told ABC News that unless officials make drastic changes to the election process, a runoff election between Karzai and Abdullah would be a "complete disaster."
Galbraith has been critical of the U.N. for its handling of last summer's election and was recently fired from his post after feuding with U.N. officials whom he alleges were complicit in the fraud.