Afghan President Hamid Karzai will make a decision in the next few days likely to have a significant impact on President Obama’s decision about US policy and strategy in Afghanistan.
“The partnership Karzai wants not just with us but other international partners depends on his country seeing him as its legitimate leader,” a senior White House official told ABC News.
Karzai’s decision could impact the nature of the US relationship with the Afghan government, which will be critical to the decision President Obama is making, officials said.
And that depends on how Karzai responds to the conclusion and recommendations of an international body investigating Afghan election fraud.
“We’re about to enter into a very active phase of talks with Afghans,” a knowledgeable source said. “This is an important moment for Karzai.”
Much of the coverage of the timing of President Obama’s pending decision has focused on the recommendations made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But as important, officials say, are the election results. Obama administration officials anticipated Taliban violence on election day. Not anticipated: that accusations of voter fraud would be so rampant, nearly two months after the election, the result remained up in the air.
Officials underline that whatever happens, “the Afghan people are going to have to figure this out,” as one said.
That said, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has been intensely involved in conveying to Karzai how important it is that the Afghan government not be seen as illegitimate following the fraud-filled election of August 20.
Sometime in the next few days – it looks like Saturday at the earliest – the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) will issue a report on what it believes the actual election results were from the August voting.
On September 16, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) reported that Karzai received 3,093,256 votes, or 54.6%. The runner-up was Abdullah Abdullah, with 1,571,581 votes, or 27.8%.
International observers have questioned the credibility of the election, and observers anticipate that the ECC will report that when fraudulent ballots are removed from the tabulation, Karzai received less than 50% of the vote.
The situation is then in the hands of the IEC, regarded by many as being under Karzai’s control.
The IEC's decision could be to call for a run-off election between Karzai and Abdullah, or a unity government with both Karzai and Abdullah, or some sort of counsel including other parties.
The crucial question for Karzai: what will he do?
Will he accept the judgment of the ECC? Will he push the IEC to reject it? Will he reject its advice altogether?
“Obviously the allegations of fraud in the recent election are of concern to us," President Obama said on September 25. "And we are still awaiting results. We're awaiting the IEC and the ECC issuing their full report. What's most important is that there is a sense of legitimacy in Afghanistan among the Afghan people for their government. If there is not, that makes our task much more difficult.”
“The reason we’re taking this time and looking at the issue” of US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan “so comprehensively,” a senior administration official said, “is so we can assess our ability to achieve the nature of our goals in Afghanistan. And that depends on many factors and one of them is our Afghan partners.”
The Obama administration has made clear it will not withdraw troops from Afghanistan. But whether or not the Afghan government is seen as legitimate will be a major factor in determining the viability of any counterinsurgency effort that depends upon partnership with a credible government.
After the ECC rules, the IEC will announce whether it will take its advice, or disregard it.
A possible bad sign: One of two Afghans on the five-person ECC, Karzai ally Afghan Supreme Court Judge Maulavi Mustafa Barikzai, resigned from the ECC on Monday, complaining of "foreign interference" on the commission. Another: on Tuesday, in an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, Karzai belittled the amount of election fraud.
“The election was good and fair and worthy of praise, not of scorn, which the election received from the international media,” Karzai said. “That makes me very unhappy. That rather makes me angry.
And we must not turn an election of the Afghan people, a victory of the Afghan people, into a nightmare for the Afghan people.”
“There’s jockeying going on around these processes,” a senior administration official said.
The president noted that in March he said “after the election, we are going to reassess our strategy, precisely because so much of our success has to be linked to the ability of the Afghan people themselves to provide for their own security, their own training, the Afghan government's ability to deliver services and opportunity and hope to their people.”