ABC News' Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller report:
President Obama telephoned Hamid Karzai at roughly 1:45 pm ET this afternoon, delivering to him the best wishes of the United States for a second presidential term after an election fraught with corruption and accusations of illegitimacy.
“I congratulated him on his election for a second term as president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama told reporters as he sat in the Oval Office next to the prime minister of Sweden. “You know, although the process was messy, I’m pleased to say that the final outcome was determined in accordance with Afghan law.”
For weeks the Obama administration insisted that if the independent body investigating election fraud ultimately concluded that Karzai had received less than 50% of the vote, Karazi and his top challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah would need to either enter into an election run-off or some form of unity government.
At the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh on September 25, President Obama said “allegations of fraud in the recent election (in Afghanistan) are of concern to us” and he declared that “what's most important is that there's a sense of legitimacy in Afghanistan among the Afghan people for their government."
Today the White House was asked if there is a sense of legitimacy in Afghanistan among the Afghan people for the Karzai government.
“I have no reason to believe there's not,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Today the president said the fact that an orderly outcome – a run-off election ordered and agreed to, if not carried out – was “very important not only for the international community which has so much invested in Afghan’s success but most importantly it is important for the Afghan people that the results were in accordance with and followed the rules laid down by the Afghan constitution.”
The shift likely owes more to President Obama’s belief that at this point the least worse option in the Afghan electoral mess is to accept Karzai, who won a significant plurality of votes in August even after disputed ballots were removed from consideration.
Mr. Obama made sure to underscore his dissatisfaction with the leadership of the president whose re-election he was re-affirming, saying he told Karzai that the American people and the international community want to continue their partnership, but he also “emphasized that this has to be a point in time in which we begin to write a new chapter” in Afghanistan’s history, “based on improved governance, a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption,” and more joint training of Afghan forces “so the Afghan people can provide for their own security.”
“That kind of coordination and a sense on the part of President Karzai that after some difficult years when there’s been some drift that he is going to move boldly and forcefully forward to take advantage of the international community’s interest with his country, to initiate reform internally, that has to be one of our highest priorities,” the president said.
“He assured me that he understood the importance of this moment,” Mr. Obama reported. But, he said, he told him, “the proof is not going to be in words, it’s going to be in deeds.”
So how will this decision impact President Obama’s decision on strategy going forward in Afghanistan?
White House officials insist they never were under the impression that the next president of Afghanistan was going to be the Second Coming of Thomas Jefferson; there were always going to be issues, they say, when it came to governance, corruption, training Afghan security forces, and expanding the president’s power beyond Kabul.
The Obama administration is splitting a diplomatic hair in its acceptance of Karzai, declaring him “legitimate” but not necessarily “credible” – not yet, anyway.
Earlier, asked if Karzai was the legitimate, credible partner President Obama and his team have repeatedly said the U.S. effort in Afghanistan needs, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that “everyone can take heart in the notion that the laws of Afghanistan and the institutions of Afghanistan prevailed. President Karzai has been declared the winner of the Afghan election and will head the next government of Afghanistan. So, obviously, he's the legitimate leader of the country.”
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters “legitimacy is derived from the government respecting the will of the Afghan people and obeying Afghanistan's laws and institutions.
And what we're seeing so far is all of these laws and institutions being respected.”
As for Karzai’s credibility, Gibbs said, “nobody has ever made the accusation that credibility was going to be had simply out of one election,”
The White House spokesman insisted “that would have been true, quite frankly, whomever got elected and whoever participated….The conversations that now have to be had and continued with the Afghan government are the steps that they're going to take to improve their governance, to improve their civil society, and to address fraud and corruption.”
“Now begin the hard conversations about ensuring credibility,” Gibbs said. “We are focused on what has to happen in order to have a credible partner” in preparation for when U.S. troops leave the country, he said, so “when ultimately we leave, there's somebody there that can sustain the progress that's been made. Obviously, one of the things that has been talked quite a bit about in the Situation Room meetings is, how do we create an environment that best trains Afghan national army and Afghan national police as part of an Afghan national security force?”
Karzai’s legitimacy, of course, is not so obvious to everyone.
The first Afghan-run election, held in August, was riddled with so much fraud more than a million ballots were thrown out by the United Nations-backed Electoral Complains Commission. When Abdullah withdrew today he said he was worried fraud would continue. He had had asked Karzai to remove the head of the Independent Electoral Commission; Karzai refused.
When it was pointed out to him that quite obviously Abdullah has some questions about Karzai’s legitimacy, Gibbs said, “Dr. Abdullah made his own personal and political decision about this particular run-off.” Gibbs argued that the investigation into allegations of fraud “worked, throwing out enough votes to require a second round, and convincing President Karzai to participate in that, which clearly was not by any means a given”
Obama administration officials argued that Abdullah was likely to lose Saturday’s run-off election, and suggested his withdrawal was his seizing an opportunity to make a point about corruption.
Gibbs pointed out that even after the ballots were thrown out, “you saw that Dr. Abdullah trailed by a fairly large margin President Karzai.”
“So,” Gibbs said, “I don't think there's any reason to believe that the Afghan people won't think this government is as legitimate as it is.”
-Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller