On Monday, as the vote-counting in was nearing an end, Secretary of State was briefed by the American ambassador in Kabul, . The same day, the ambassador delivered a blunt message to the front-runner, President : “Don’t declare victory.”
The slim majority tentatively awarded Mr. Karzai in Afghanistan’s fraud-scarred election has put the Obama administration in an awkward spot: trying to balance its professed determination to investigate mounting allegations of corruption and vote-rigging while not utterly alienating the man who seems likely to remain the country’s leader for another five years.
Mrs. Clinton and Ambassador Eikenberry, senior administration officials said, wanted to prevent Mr. Karzai or his backers from pre-empting an outside investigation of allegations of irregularities in the Aug. 20 vote.
“We realize that the allegations have reached such a level that we need to be very careful to allow the process to breathe,” said an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “The message was, Let’s make sure that the electoral bodies do their work, and do it rigorously.”
On Tuesday, the -backed that is the ultimate arbiter of the vote said it found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud” at several polling stations and .
Election officials said Mr. Karzai won 54.1 percent of the vote, a percentage that, if certified, would spare him a runoff against his main challenger, , who received 28.3 percent.
But in recent days, the Obama administration has grown increasingly alarmed by the that ballot-stuffing and phantom polling stations generated lopsided margins in favor of Mr. Karzai.
For the United States, the problem is twofold: the fraud complaints against Mr. Karzai are almost certain to undercut his legitimacy if he is sworn in for another term as president, and American officials want whoever is president to have credibility with the Afghan people and with the international community.
Yet the more outside observers complain about fraud, the more alienated Mr. Karzai may become, and the less willing he may be to work with the United States or its allies, administration officials said.
“We are still going to probably have to deal with him,” another American official said. “This just makes the morning after a lot more difficult.”
A possible path out of the morass, said another American official, would be if Mr. Karzai and the runner-up, Mr. Abdullah, were able to work out a deal under which Mr. Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister, would join the new Karzai government.
“Everybody’s thinking about this,” the official said. “It would be like getting Hillary Clinton to endorse Obama at the convention. Getting Karzai’s people to work on Abdullah and get him to come into the government is too obvious for people not to be considering it.”
Such a deal would be difficult for Mr. Abdullah, experts said, given the temptation he would feel to condemn the vote as a fraud. But officials said Mr. Karzai could entice him if he were to agree to the direct election of provincial governors, which Mr. Abdullah has advocated, or to limit the influence of powerful warlords.
Publicly, the administration is calling for a “complete and rigorous vetting” of all election complaints, said the State Department spokesman, Ian C. Kelly. He told reporters on Tuesday that it could take “a matter of months.”
“It is very important that these elections are seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people and in the eyes of the international community,” he said. “I’m not going to prejudge where the whole thing comes out.”
Even privately, administration officials are reluctant to confirm that there was wholesale fraud of the kind that would invalidate the election. While there were clearly numerous egregious instances of fraud or vote-rigging, these officials said, it would take further investigation to judge whether, as one put it, “this whole thing is rotten, top to bottom.”
Their caution reflects the fact that while the initial vote-counting has reached its conclusion, the Electoral Complaints Commission, an Afghan and international panel that will certify the final count, is still in the early stages of an investigation that could take several weeks.
But it also reflects a recognition that the administration will have to keep dealing with Mr. Karzai, especially as it enters a treacherous phase in its engagement in Afghanistan. Raising too many doubts about Mr. Karzai’s legitimacy could make it impossible to work with him later.
“Even if we get a second round of voting, the odds are still high that Karzai will win,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the who advised the administration on its Afghan policy. “We have a fundamental interest in building up the legitimacy of the Karzai government.”
European diplomats expressed similar frustration that they were powerless to do much now except wait. “There’s a great perception out there that Karzai has stolen this,” one diplomat said. “I’m realistic enough to know that there’s not much we can do about that right now.”
If there is an advantage to a lengthy inquiry, Mr. Riedel said, it is that it would give Ambassador Eikenberry, a retired general, and other officials time to try to maneuver Mr. Karzai into a bargain with his opponents.
“This requires delicacy and a deft hand,” he said. “You don’t want to create a downward spiral in U.S.-Afghan relations.”
Helene Cooper contributed reporting.
This article, "U.S. in delicate spot as fraud claims mount in Afghan vote," first appeared in The New York Times.