President Hamid Karzai's top challenger in Afghanistan's intensely contested presidential election said Thursday he had faith that a U.N.-backed commission working to root out fraudulent votes would announce a fair decision within days.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah stopped short of saying he would accept its results, however, and expressed concern over the commission's methodology. But "we have to have faith in something," he said.
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which is tasked with determining how many fraudulent votes to toss out, could release its finding as early as Saturday. The nation's main electoral body would then announce whether Abdullah will face Karzai in a runoff, which would have to be held within two weeks.
Uncertainty over the election outcome has eaten away at Karzai's legitimacy, leaving Afghanistan in limbo as the Taliban-led insurgency in the countryside deepens and the Obama administration debates its strategy in a war that has become increasingly unpopular in the U.S.
"While the international community is reviewing its policy, it's crucial that the process end with an outcome which leads to a legitimate government which could be a partner for the international community ... and deal with the challenges which are ahead of it," Abdullah told reporters on the lawn of his home in Kabul.
Is a runoff imminent?
Abdullah's camp believes a runoff is imminent. Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said Thursday he expected otherwise.
"If that process remains technical, remains transparent and remains accountable, we do not see a chance for the elections to go to a second round," Omar said. He said he based his comment on reports from Karzai representatives who observed the opening and examining of ballot boxes.
Preliminary results show Karzai won re-election with about 54.6 percent of the vote, but the commission could discard enough fraudulent ballots to drop his tally below 50 percent and force a second round.
Both candidates rejected rumors that they might agree to some sort of power-sharing deal or coalition government rather than risk a runoff that will likely be plagued by more violence and could be hampered in the north by winter snow that cuts off mountain villages.
A U.N. spokesman in Kabul also dismissed the idea that alternatives to a runoff were being pushed by the international community.
"We are meeting with the candidates and their campaign teams regularly, but this is part of our efforts to keep them updated on progress with the elections, and any future government will be decided by the winning candidates and not anybody from the international community," Aleem Siddique said.
‘We still have faith’
The top U.N. official in Afghanistan has acknowledged "widespread fraud" occurred in the Aug. 20 poll. On Monday, the Canadian head of the complaints commission, Grant Kippen, said his panel had misinterpreted the statistical analysis used to determine what percentage of votes would be voided if fraudulent, but said the confusion had not affected the process, only "people's perception" of it.
"That formula has come under a lot of question," Abdullah said. But "in spite of all this we still have faith."
The election dispute is taking place against the backdrop of rising violence.
On Thursday, Afghan and NATO forces clashed with militants in eastern Afghanistan, killing several insurgents, U.S. military and provincial officials said.
The Zabul provincial police chief, Abdul Rahman Surjung, said 14 militants were killed in Zabul province's Bahar district and another eight in Argandab district overnight.
A U.S. forces spokeswoman confirmed the Bahar fighting and another battle in Wardak province, both sparked when the joint Afghan-NATO forces came under fire while searching for Taliban commanders. Capt. Regina Gillis said fewer than 10 militants were killed in the two operations.
An Italian soldier died Thursday from wounds sustained when his vehicle tipped over while traveling on an unstable road, the Italian military said. Two other soldiers on board were bruised in the accident near Herat in the west.
Meanwhile, Italy and NATO on Thursday denied a newspaper report that Italian intelligence secretly paid the Taliban thousands of dollars to maintain peace in an area in Afghanistan that was under Italian control.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office called the report in the Times of London "completely groundless." The Italian defense minister denounced it as "rubbish" and said he wanted to sue the newspaper.
In Kabul, a U.S. spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan denied the allegations. "We don't do bribes," Col. Wayne Shanks said. "We don't pay the insurgents."
The Times reported that Italy had paid "tens of thousands of dollars" to Taliban commanders and warlords in the Surobi district, east of the capital, Kabul. The newspaper cited Western military officials, including high-ranking officers at NATO, speaking on condition of anonymity.