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Karzai appears to win by default

Rival out; push on to cancel runoff; US hopes to help restore legitimacy

By Alexandra Zavis
Los Angeles Times / November 2, 2009

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KABUL - The withdrawal yesterday of President Hamid Karzai’s only rival in an election runoff effectively handed the incumbent another five-year term, but without the clear mandate US officials had hoped would make him an effective partner in the struggle to stabilize Afghanistan.

Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, said he decided not to take part in the Nov. 7 vote because Karzai had refused his demands for changes to the country’s election infrastructure to prevent the type of rampant ballot box-stuffing and other irregularities that marred the first round of voting in August.

The announcement plunged the country into uncharted legal and political territory, with no consensus on whether the runoff should still be held. Western officials, who leaned heavily on Karzai to accept a runoff election after the tainted first round, are now pressing the president and Afghan electoral officials to find a legally acceptable way to cancel the runoff and declare Karzai the winner.

Abdullah quit six days before the vote after last-minute talks led by the United States and United Nations failed to produce a power-sharing agreement acceptable to Karzai, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

American officials hope to help restore legitimacy to Karzai’s government by en couraging him to build a reform-minded government that is ethnically representative and includes Abdullah’s followers.

US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and UN mission chief Kai Eide negotiated with the two camps late into the night Saturday about a power-sharing deal, according to the Western diplomat.

But the negotiations broke down early yesterday when Karzai refused a formula for dividing Cabinet posts. If the deal had been accepted, Abdullah would have conceded rather than simply withdraw his candidacy, the diplomat said. Abdullah’s decision not to call for a boycott may indicate he is open to talks.

The election imbroglio has taken place as President Obama deliberates whether to deepen US involvement in the war, including deploying tens of thousands of additional troops. A weak and discredited government in Kabul would make it more difficult to persuade a disillusioned American public and Congress to up the ante on a life-and-death commitment.

Senior adviser David Axelrod said yesterday that the White House was weeks away from a decision on more troops.

“As you know, he has gone through a very rigorous process because the goal here is not just to make an arithmetic judgment about the number of troops, but to make sure that we have the right strategy,’’ Axelrod said.

Axelrod said Abdullah’s decision to withdraw means that Karzai all but certainly will remain in power. “We are going to deal with the government that is there. . . . And obviously there are issues we need to discuss, such as reducing the high level of corruption,’’ Axelrod said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’

Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the top House Republican, yesterday pressed Obama for a decision on whether to send more troops, saying the muddled election should not further delay the strategy review. “The longer this decision hangs, the more jeopardy and the more danger our troops on the ground there are in the middle of,’’ Boehner said on CNN’s “State of the Union.’’

Boehner said he always expected Karzai would win the runoff and that Abdullah’s withdrawal “really says more about the fact that he knew he wasn’t going to win.’’

US officials yesterday sought to play down the importance of Abdullah’s withdrawal and held out hope that Afghans would have confidence in a regime that still might include officials from his camp.

The officials were relieved that Abdullah did not urge followers to boycott the election or take to the streets.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Abdullah for running a “dignified and constructive campaign that drew the support of Afghan people across the nation. We hope that he will continue to stay engaged in the national dialogue and work on behalf of the security and prosperity of the people of Afghanistan.’’

American military officials emphasized that the command in Afghanistan and the Pentagon were working hard not to involve themselves in the politics - remaining neutral on who should be elected.

White House officials have debated whether to make the final decision on troop levels before or after the Afghan voting. If the election does not proceed, reasons for delay might seem flimsier.

“If anything, it will speed the debate up,’’ a Defense official said. “Karzai is the guy. . . . There is nothing we can do about it.’’

Other military officials believe the White House has settled on a timetable for making decisions and that Abdullah’s withdrawal will have little effect on the timing.

But how the events of the next few days play out could have a major effect on the substance of the strategy debate.

Karzai’s campaign, after resisting a runoff, focused last week on mobilizing a strong turnout for the president, particularly in the south, which is dominated by his fellow Pashtuns.

Campaign spokesman Waheed Omar said their preference is to go ahead with the vote, but the campaign would abide by the decision of the Independent Election Commission.

Azizullah Lodin, who heads the panel appointed by Karzai, said it would convene today to reach a decision in consultation with legal experts.

UN-backed auditors threw out more than 1 million votes cast Aug. 20, including nearly one-third of Karzai’s tally. That left the president just short of the 50 percent threshold required for an outright win and forced him into the runoff.

Last week, Abdullah announced a list of demands he said would help prevent a repeat of the fraud, including the removal of Lodin and two deputies. Karzai maintained that he did not have the authority to dismiss commission members, who can be removed only through the judicial system.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.