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Abdullah pullout from Afghan runoff sows new doubt over legitimacy

President Hamid Karzai's top rival, Abdullah Abdullah, said a "transparent election is not possible." Will his supporters resort to violence?

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So far, at least, the US still appears to be sticking to Karzai's acceptance of a runoff as the pivotal moment in the election.

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"When President Karzai accepted the second round without knowing what the consequences and outcome would be, that bestowed legitimacy from that moment forward and Dr. Abdullah's decision does not in any way take away from that," said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday in Jerusalem.

Maley expressed surprise that Ms. Clinton "could so fool herself to think there is not a legitimacy issue here." He also sees the runoff announcement as a turning point – except he sees it as the moment things went from bad to worse.

"They sang Karzai's praises just because he went along with what the law required," says Maley. "That would be read by Karzai as a sign of weakness."

Subsequently, the international community proved unwilling to take a strong stand on the anticorruption measures in the second round, he says. The message that Karzai will take from this into the next five years is that the Western powers are "utterly supine." Maley's forecast for the next Karzai government: "Obstreperousness."

US troops debate becomes more complicated

The prospect of a less legitimate government that's less disposed to reform complicates the ongoing debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan on a counterinsurgency mission. Even the chief proponent of the strategic shift, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, admits that more troops won't help if governance doesn't improve.

Afghan supporters of Karzai point out that the president is on record promising that he will crack down on government corruption and the illegal narcotics trade.

"Hopefully he will honor his word," says Khalid Pashtoon, a Member of Parliament from Kandahar. "If not, we will have the same circumstances we had in the last five years."

Mr. Pashtoon, however, expressed more urgent concern not about the next five years, but the next five days. In that time it will become clear how Abdullah's supporters react to his withdrawal.

Abdullah tells supporters to be calm

Abdullah received the plurality of votes in 10 of the nation's 34 provinces, and received more than 60 percent of the vote in four provinces dominated by ethnic minority Tajiks.

"In those states which he won, there will be some difficulty for the officials appointed there. These are questions in the next four to five days and we hope this will not lead to any kind of chaos or disturbance," says Pashtoon.

Abdullah helped lower the temperature by urging his supporters "not to go to the streets, not to demonstrate."

But a large number of Afghans will wind up seeing the election as a bloodless coup, says Maley. And alienated Abdullah supporters have the potential to destabilize areas that, until now, have been among the most staunchly pro-government.