KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States and other powers struggled Saturday to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accept a deal to resolve the dispute over the country's tainted presidential election and avert a political crisis that could spark civil unrest and jeopardize the U.S.-led fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.
The Afghan leader's closest challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, told U.S. officials earlier this week that he'd agree to a deal under certain conditions, said three U.S. officials, who all requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.
Under the plan, Karzai would accept the fact that when fraudulent votes are thrown out, he failed to win more than half the vote in the Aug. 20 election. In return, Abdullah, the second-place finisher, would forgo a runoff by withdrawing and endorsing a Karzai-led unity government that included some of his allies, the officials said. Karzai also would have to pursue key political reforms to root out official corruption and improve public services.
"If you can mediate a settlement which leads to a stronger and more unified government, our sense is that that would be a means of garnering the most significant support by the Afghan people and enhancing the perceived legitimacy of that government," said a senior Obama administration official in Washington.
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The war in Afghanistan entered its ninth year this month, with U.S. commanders acknowledging that the 100,000-strong U.S.-led international contingent and Afghan security forces are at risk of losing. A recent U.S. intelligence assessment estimated that there now are at least 25,000 full-time Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan, 20 percent more than there were a year ago.
A stable Kabul government is crucial to President Barack Obama's efforts to reformulate his Afghan war strategy. Officials led by Vice President Joe Biden favor shifting the focus to decapitating al Qaida in neighboring Pakistan, but top U.S. military commanders are seeking as many as 80,000 additional U.S. troops to help stabilize Afghanistan and double the size of the Afghan National Army.
Karzai, however, appeared to be digging in his heels Saturday, giving no indication that he's willing to accept a decision expected Sunday from the United Nations Election Complaints Commission that could toss out as many as 1.5 million questionable votes for him. That would drive his preliminary tally of 54.6 percent below the 50 percent mark and require a runoff.
Karzai's refusal to accept the EEC's decision, perhaps by turning to the country's Independent Election Commission, whose members he appointed, or to its Supreme Court, which he dominates, could ignite a potentially violent backlash by Abdullah's supporters, the bulk of whom are Tajiks and other ethnic minorities who dominate Kabul and northern Afghanistan.
"The best possible outcome at this point is (for Karzai) to accept a runoff and let Abdullah concede with a deal," a senior U.S defense official said Saturday.
Karzai, however, is under pressure from his supporters, mostly members of his dominant Pashtun ethnic group, to claim victory. His campaign staff alleges that any tally of 50 percent or less would be due to "foreign interference" in the commission, whose members include three U.N.-appointed Westerners.
"They (the complaints commission) are under pressure, and they are listening to the people who are putting pressure on them, Moen Marastyal, a member of the Afghan parliament, told McClatchy.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met with Karzai Saturday in an apparent effort to win his acceptance of a deal with Abdullah.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Karzai and Abdullah in separate telephone calls Friday to "work together for a constructive outcome. One way to do this would be go through with the runoff," said the senior Obama administration official. "Another would be to find an arrangement that unifies the country behind a new government. That is ultimately up to them."
Clinton stressed to Karzai in their 40-minute conversation "that this is an important moment where he can show statesmanship and actually strengthen his leadership position," the official said.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also called Karzai Friday.
Accepting a deal with Abdullah, however, could compel Karzai to renege on promises of positions and influence he made to the warlords and ethnic power barons who oversaw the ballot box stuffing on his behalf. In retaliation, those men could begin supporting the Taliban-led insurgency.
"I don't think anyone is underestimating the security challenges that this would pose," said the senior administration official.
The Complaints Commission Saturday completed its audit of suspect ballots in the election, which was marred by insurgent attacks and massive ballot-box stuffing and other malfeasance by local warlords and power barons, most but not all of it on Karzai's behalf.
The commission's finding will go to the country's top electoral body, the Independent Election Commission, which must confirm a final result.
Karzai has been leaning on the Independent Election Commission to challenge the scope of any fraud findings, said Afghan and Western officials monitoring the process.
Independent Election Commission Chairman Azizullah Lodin indicated in an interview with McClatchy Saturday that he might dispute the complaint commission's conclusions.
"As I understand the law . . . it requires us to confirm these findings, and there is the possibility to question them," he said.
Afghan parliamentarian Marastyal warned that if the Independent Election Commission rejects a first-round win for Karzai, the Afghan leader could seek an annulment of the decision by the Supreme Court, whose members are widely considered his allies.
"If the commission announces results against President Karzai, then it is probable that that our people will apply to the Supreme Court," Marastyal told McClatchy.
Abdullah hasn't publicly said that he'd accept a deal to avoid a runoff, but he told reporters on Thursday that when the first-round result was finalized, there'd be a "new environment," and he'd be open to discussion.
"I am hoping that the outcome is based on the rule of law, and based on the real votes . . . rather than being the results of threats and intimidation," Abdullah said.
Under Afghan election law, a run-off would be scheduled two weeks after the announcement of the final vote, but Western and Afghan officials say it would be difficult to hold a second round.
Snow in mountainous provinces would make it difficult to open some polling sites, and the Taliban have said they'd try to disrupt the voting. A second election also could see more widespread fraud.
(Bernton, of The Seattle Times, reported from Kabul; Landay reported from Washington. Hashim Shukoor, a McClatchy special correspondent, contributed.)
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