U.S. officials expect Afghan President Hamid Karzai to concede on Tuesday that he fell short of the 50 percent vote share in August's election that he needed to win outright, but it was unclear Monday whether that would lead quickly to a runoff election with his nearest challenger, a U.S. government official said.
On Monday, U.N.-backed fraud investigators threw out nearly a third of Karzai's votes, undercutting his claim of victory.
Karzai could opt to embrace a runoff, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday was logistically feasible within weeks, or he could attempt to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who finished second in the August balloting.
The U.S. government official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because Karzai had not yet announced his decision, said it was not clear Monday which of the two avenues to settling the political crisis Karzai would pursue.
The U.S. preference is for a power-sharing deal to avoid the expense and risk of a second election.
Clinton said that Karzai intends to announce Tuesday how he will "set the stage" for resolving the country's postelection political stalemate.
"He is going to announce his intentions," Clinton told reporters at the State Department after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "I am going to let him do that, but I am encouraged at the direction the situation is moving."
Clinton declined to say whether Karzai has decided to accept the findings of a U.N.-backed fraud investigation that threw out nearly a third of Karzai's ballots from the disputed August election and set the stage for a possible runoff.
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was U.S. ambassador to Kabul from 2003 to 2005 and who is in Kabul in a private role seeking to resolve the political standoff, said Monday that a power-sharing arrangement may be the best solution. He said he thinks that both Karzai and Abdullah are willing to work out a unity government.
"There is every indication that the Obama administration favors a unity government rather than another vote," Khalilzad said in an interview with ABC News. He added that such an arrangement could be problematic.
"I think the most likely outcome is a unity government, but a government that will take a long time to put together, may not be very strong and will not be necessarily a very effective partner given the internal disagreements within that government," he said.
Clinton did not address the prospect of a coalition, or unity, government headed by Karzai and Abdullah.
"I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days," Clinton said. "But I don't want to pre-empt in any way President Karzai's statement, which will set the stage for how we go forward in the next stage of this."
Clinton said she has spoken a number of times to Karzai in recent days.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, said the Obama administration needs to decide on a war strategy and not "sit on our hands" waiting for election results and a government to emerge in Kabul. In remarks to reporters traveling with him to Asia, the Pentagon chief said President Barack Obama will have to make his decisions in the context of "evolving" issues.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, a spokeswoman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Karzai assured the U.N. chief that he will "fully respect" the constitutional process even if it means a runoff election.
The spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said Ban spoke with Karzai on Monday morning.
Among those most closely involved in seeking a resolution of the crisis is Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said in interviews over the weekend from Kabul that the election process must be settled legitimately before the Obama administration can make a reasoned decision about whether to send additional troops and to commit other resources to stabilizing Afghanistan.
A Kerry spokesman in Washington, Frederick Jones, said Kerry returned to Kabul on Monday after meetings in Pakistan and met with Karzai again. It was Kerry's fourth meeting with the president in as many days, and the first since the U.N. commission's announcement that it found substantial numbers of fraudulent votes.
"He is looking for a way forward to legitimize the election and empower effective government," Jones said.
Kerry will remain in Kabul on Tuesday, with further meetings scheduled, Jones added.
In Kabul, Karzai campaign spokesman Waheed Omar said the president was waiting for the Afghan-led Independent Election Commission to decide whether to accept the fraud panel's findings that dropped Karzai's vote share to 48 percent of the total, below the 50 percent threshold needed for him to avoid a runoff.
The original vote count had given Karzai 54 percent of the total.
Once the independent commission has accepted and certified the findings, they have force of law and the Karzai campaign would comply, the spokesman said.
Clinton said she has received assurances from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, as well as from Afghan authorities, that it's possible to conduct a second election before the onset of paralyzing winter snows.
She declined to say whether Obama would withhold a decision on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan until the election crisis is over.
"But obviously this is a major part of our strategic review as to, you know, getting the election behind us, getting a new government that can represent the partnership we're seeking as we move forward," she said.