The challenger to Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced Sunday that he is withdrawing from the Nov. 7 runoff election, casting deeper doubts about the foundations of support for the next government in Afghanistan as well as the ability of the international community to influence it.
Abdullah Abdullah said he would not participate in the runoff because a "transparent election is not possible." But he did not call for a boycott of the vote.
Before dropping out, Dr. Abdullah lobbied unsuccessfully for a number of changes to the election process aimed at curbing the widespread fraud seen in the first round. He called for the replacement of several of Mr. Karzai's top appointees within the country's election commission and a decrease in polling centers in areas where insecurity prevented oversight. Instead, the commission sacked only lower-level workers and actually increased the number of polling centers.
The refusal to compromise with Abdullah worries observers that Karzai – who is now all but assured to win another five-year term – still sees no need to prioritize clean, effective governance.
"There's a widespread but ill-grounded assumption that the Afghan government will be disposed to engage in reform under Western pressure," says William Maley, an expert on Afghanistan politics at the Australian National University. "Right under the noses of the internationals, they have engaged in utterly shameless fraud and, in effect, they got away with it."
Less than two weeks ago, intense international pressure resulted in Karzai accepting a runoff due to widespread fraud. Western officials and analysts saw a silver lining there: International backers found the right buttons to push with Karzai. Glimmers of hope emerged that if Karzai stuck around for five more years, perhaps he could be a partner for international efforts to win back the support of a population gripped by insurgency.
Mr. Maley and other observers say that nothing so far has backed up such hopes.
Writing Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Galbraith, an American who was fired from the United Nations' Afghanistan mission after complaining it had covered up fraud, charged: "In the week since the agreement, it has become clear that Karzai and his allies are determined to win the second round by any means possible, regardless of the cost to the country or the international military effort."
Clinton: Abdullah move doesn't ruin legitimacy
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.
"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.
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.