WASHINGTON — The United States would be receptive to a power-sharing arrangement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his election challenger if they agreed to it, Obama administration officials said Wednesday.
Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah have settled on a Nov. 7 runoff following weeks of acrimony over Afghanistan's fraud-ridden national election. But both sides also are considering a coalition government that could either replace the runoff or follow it.
A State Department official said the U.S. would not be opposed to a power-sharing deal, depending on its legitimacy and how it was implemented. And Obama appeared to allude to the still-fluid discussions Wednesday.
"I think we're still in — finding out how this whole process in Afghanistan is going to unfold," President Barack Obama said in an interview on MSNBC.
One senior defense official said that a power-sharing deal at this point had equal odds of coming together or falling apart.
The administration is stressing that any such agreement is up to the Afghan government and the U.S. is not involved in any effort to forge or encourage it.
The U.S. wants a government that is legitimate in the eyes of Afghans and the international community, officials say, and at present that legitimacy appears clearest through the Afghan Constitution's requirement for a run-off vote.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe confidential discussions between the two governments.
"We don't have any view really on a power-sharing arrangement," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters on Wednesday. "It would depend on the manner in which it was presented and carried out."
Officials also said Wednesday that Obama's pending decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan figured in the U.S. discussions with Karzai about how to resolve the political impasse.
Several officials stressed that the looming troop plan decision was not used overtly to force Karzai to concede on the election's contested first round, but one highly placed U.S. official in Afghanistan said the United States used Obama's deliberation over troop numbers as leverage.
That official spoke on condition of anonymity because Obama has not announced whether he will agree to a U.S. military request for thousands of additional forces.
However, Sen. John Kerry said that waiting for the results of a runoff election before deciding on a new military strategy was "common sense ... it's hard for me to believe that the president would decide otherwise."
That appeared to put Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at odds with the president who hasn't determined whether to wait for the run-off results to announce his new war plan.
Kerry returned from Afghanistan, where he played a critical role in persuading Karzai to accept a run-off vote after a fraud-plagued election. The talks lasted late into several nights, continued through endless meals and went on for hours each day. He also met with Abdullah to encourage him to sign on to a new vote.
Karzai and Abdullah have largely dismissed the idea of sharing power, but there have been reports of private horsetrading discussions before and since Tuesday's announcement that the country would hold a runoff election on Nov. 7.
The most important near-term goal for the U.S. was Karzai's acceptance of election commission results and his recognition that the impasse must be resolved, the defense official said.
The outcome has been in doubt since an August election badly marred by fraud. The United Nations says much of the vote-rigging and phantom balloting was done on Karzai's behalf.
'Time to get this right'
Obama is mulling how to shift strategy in the 8-year-old Afghanistan war, and the election mess in Afghanistan has played a big role in his intensive, weeks-long discussions with his war council.
"What we've said is that it is important to make sure that we understand the landscape and the partner that we're going to be dealing with," Obama told MSNBC. "Because our strategy in Afghanistan is not just dependent on military — forces. It's also dependent on how well we're doing with our civilian development efforts, how well we're doing in stemming corruption. So, this is part of a comprehensive strategy, it always has been. And our basic attitude is that we are going to take the time to get this right."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the decision about troops could come before the Nov. 7 runoff date.
"I don't know when the decision is going to be, so it's certainly possible," Gibbs said.
In his own interview, Obama added that even if the new strategy is formulated before the runoff "we may not announce it."
The White House has been saying that Obama's decision on troops is still weeks away. Obama leaves Nov. 11 for a long trip to Asia, and it has been expected he would make a decision before then.
A State Department official said Abdullah's camp had expressed some interest in a coalition or power-sharing deal, and that some Karzai aides, concerned about the results of a runoff, are willing to consider the idea despite the president's public repudiation of the idea.
That official said the U.S. would support any course that leads to the formation of a credible government in the eyes of the Afghan people.
That could include a coalition or other power-sharing arrangement that is either formed to eliminate the need for a second round or one that is created using the results of the runoff.
But there are no provisions for a coalition in the Afghan Constitution, and it is not clear how such a deal would work or remain enforceable.
Abdullah was not enthusiastic in public comments Wednesday in Kabul about a possible power-sharing arrangement, although as the second-place finisher in August he probably has the most to gain from such a deal.
"I think a coalition government is not a solution for Afghanistan's problems," Abdullah said, speaking in Dari. "The solution is to bring peace and good governance."
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