The Latest from Kabul: the View from the White House

Oct 19, 2009 5:15pm

Based on conversations US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has had in recent days with both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and leading challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, White House officials feel more confident today that negotiations are proceeding in a constructive manner.

Officials seem less worried today than they were over the weekend that Karzai will refuse to participate in either a run-off or some sort of unity government, in which Karzai appoints some Abdullah supporters as ministers in his administration and adopts some of Abdullah’s platform including anti-corruption efforts and greater efforts at transparency.

At times, the formation of a unity government has seemed to have more traction. The Karzai campaign has publicly rejected the idea of a second round of voting, and US officials have generally expressed their view that a unity government might be logistically easier, given the three weeks left until the harsh Afghan winter makes voting all but impossible. In addition, there’s nothing to say that the fraud that marred the August election wouldn’t return.

But US officials stress this is an issue that the Afghans will ultimately resolve, and constitutionally they may be required to have a run-off regardless of their personal preferences. The only essential for the US, officials say, is that the process be seen as credible.

The most troubling issue for Karzai, administration officials say, seems to be neither his confidence about winning a run-off, or his willingness to enter into a unity government, but his willingness to accept the conclusions of the United Nations-backed Election Complaints Commission and risk being seen as disenfranchising thousands of Pashtun voters.

The ECC report invalidated enough votes to bring Karzai’s total percentage to around 48%, mandating a run-off election.

In a phone call over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Karzai to accept the results of the ECC process. Clinton told Karzai he could be seen as a leader, a statesman. He would almost certainly win the run-off against Abdullah – whom the ECC said garnered just over 31% of the vote. He could also be seen as a statesman if he formed a unity government with Abdullah’s allies.

But any such move would have to begin with Karzai and the Independent Election Commission accepting the ECC ruling, essentially accepting the elimination of more than a million votes from the final vote count. 

Karzai told Clinton he’s concerned about how such a move would be received by his supporters, many of whom are Pashtun and from Southern and Eastern Afghanistan – from where the Taliban is having some recruiting successes.

Would these voters perceive Karzai as selling them out? Would they turn out for another election? Would their disenfranchisement – at the behest of the international community – be a powerful recruiting tool for the Taliban?

The US continues to argue that it’s important for Karzai to recognize the legitimacy of the work done. They argue that his acceptance of the ECC findings may upset some Pashtuns, but it will help Karzai win the confidence of a more broad cross-section of the Afghan people.

Abdullah says he has yet to hear from Karzai in any meaningful way, though he is said to be prepared to drop any demand for a run-off as long as a legitimate unity government can be negotiated.

White House officials say that Karzai has to be seen as legitimate for any nation-building plan to work. Absent hundreds of thousands of new US troops – which no senior officials of the Obama administration are advocating — any strategy of “clear, hold, and build” only works if US forces have a credible and reliable partner to whom they can hand over the holding and building.

Karzai is being lobbied heavily not just by Americans but by the larger international community in a very united way. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called Karzai, and his lead representative on the ground, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, has been in extensive discussions with Karzai.

Neither Vice President Biden nor President Obama has spoken to Karzai in recent days.

-jpt

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