In case there was any doubt before, the accusations of fraud piling up around Afghanistan's presidential election mean that Hamid Karzai won't be declared victorious in his reelection bid any time soon.
At the very least, a national electoral complaints commission investigating fraudulent voting will take weeks to determine how much of Mr. Karzai's officially declared 54.6 percent of the vote will be tossed out.
At the other extreme, a potential need for a runoff vote could end up stretching Afghanistan's political turmoil into next spring – presenting President Obama and other NATO leaders with an unsettled and deteriorating climate just as crucial policy decisions are under review.
"This is the worst of all possible worlds for us," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence specialist in Asian affairs now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "We face a possible constitutional crisis that, if not resolved, becomes a disaster for us, and a partner [Karzai] acting in ways that in effect raise questions as to whether he should be in there or not."
With prospects growing for a period of months without a legitimate national leader, Afghan and foreign officials – Americans chief among them – are debating the options for salvaging a bad situation that could get much worse.
Aside from a runoff vote, which could be declared if investigations show Karzai's total falling below 50 percent, some parties are calling for a coalition government, while others support the idea of a nonpolitical transitional government.
That debate has crystallized in a row between foreign officials over the best way to address Afghanistan's political predicament. Peter Galbraith, a senior US official working in Kabul as the deputy special UN representative for Afghanistan, abruptly left the country after clashing with his boss, Kai Eide, over what path forward to advocate.
Mr. Galbraith favors a larger recount of votes, even if it leads to a runoff between Karzai and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, and an extended period of political uncertainty.
But Mr. Eide, a Norwegian who is the top UN envoy in Afghanistan, is said to favor some kind of speedy accord among the country's political rivals – perhaps resulting in a coalition government – as a way to avoid an extended period of political uncertainty.
Another idea, suggested by Mr. Abdullah, is for a transitional government, made up of nonpolitical bureaucrats, that would administer the country until a runoff could be held.
Some Afghanistan experts say any option that fails to recognize the folly the world committed in emphasizing creation of a strong central government, and that continues down that same path, is destined to fail itself.
"The idea of imposing a central government was a mistake from the beginning, and none of the options now under consideration will be able to make this government appear legitimate to a majority of the Afghan people," says Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington.
Instead, Mr. Harrison says, Afghanistan should return to its traditional reliance on a tribal system and hold a loya jirga, or grand assembly of esteemed tribal leaders, to find a way out of the current impasse.
Citing a recent opinion piece by an Afghan lawyer and an American writer in The New York Times, Harrison says the Afghan constitution – approved by a loya jirga in 2004 – provides for holding a loya jirga "to decide on issues related to supreme national interests."
All the options are being weighed based on what each contributes to what is recognized to be the most pressing need – some government and leadership viewed both internally and by the larger world as legitimate.
That is why Mr. Weinbaum says US officials, including Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, have insisted that a runoff be held to deliver a clear winner. "They're saying, 'This ain't gonna work. We can't salvage this guy [Karzai] without him winning legitimately in a second round.' "
Many Karzai votes may be fraudulent
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