A grim President Hamid Karzai bowed to intense U.S. pressure and agreed Tuesday to a runoff election Nov. 7, acknowledging he fell short of a majority after U.N.-backed auditors stripped him of nearly a third of his votes.
With the fraud investigation completed, election officials must now scramble to organize a new ballot as the fierce Afghan winter approaches and the country faces a growing threat from Taliban insurgents.
President Barack Obama said he called Karzai to welcome his willingness to run in a new election against his main rival Abdullah Abdullah. "President Karzai's constructive actions established an important precedent for Afghanistan's new democracy," Obama said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also complimented Karzai's decision but stressed that a new election will be a "huge challenge."
"We have learned very valuable but painful lessons from the first election," Ban told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. "We must not repeat what they have done last time."
Karzai spoke at a news conference after meeting at least four times with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
'Time to move forward'
The Afghan leader did not express any regret over the widespread fraud, saying only that "this is not the right time to discuss investigations, this is the time to move forward toward stability and national unity."
He acknowledged the final results showing the need for a runoff were "legitimate, legal and according to the constitution of Afghanistan."
Kerry, who stood alongside Karzai and the head of the U.N. in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said the agreement on a second round had transformed the crisis into a "moment of great opportunity," and praised Karzai for "genuine leadership in the decision he has made today."
Karzai and Kerry were in talks as late as Tuesday afternoon, suggesting that up until the last moment there was a chance the Afghan leader would return to insisting on a first-round victory.
One alternative to a runoff that diplomats say was being discussed was a power-sharing deal, though the form that could take is unclear. And it could take weeks or months to hammer out an agreement between the two rivals. Karzai ruled out a coalition government, telling reporters, "there is no space for a coalition government in the law."
Yet the agreement that a runoff is required could be just the first step in negotiations to iron out these differences between the Karzai and Abdullah camps. Kerry said he had not discussed power-sharing with the Afghan leader, but other diplomats have said that it has been part of discussions.
Karzai's announcement came two months to the day after the first-round vote and followed weeks of political uncertainty.
In interviews over the weekend from Kabul, Kerry said the election process had to be settled before the Obama administration could make a reasoned decision about whether to send additional troops and to commit other resources to stabilizing Afghanistan.
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 Obama will have to make his decisions in the context of "evolving" issues.
At the White House on Tuesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said it has not been determined whether Obama will wait to announce an Afghan strategy until after the results of the runoff. Gibbs told reporters he still expects that announcement to be made in "the coming weeks."
Nearly a million ballots tossed
The possibility of a runoff emerged Monday after a U.N.-backed panel threw out nearly a million of Karzai's votes from the Aug. 20 ballot, pushing his totals below 50 percent and setting the stage for a runoff against Abdullah, a former foreign minister.
Shortly before the news conference, the chairman of the Afghan-run Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, said the commission did not want to "leave the people of Afghanistan in uncertainty" any longer. He said Karzai no longer had more than 50 percent of the vote needed for a first-round victory and ordered a Nov. 7 runoff.
Using the data supplied by the U.N.-backed panel, the election commission determined that Karzai won 49.7 percent of the vote — higher than independent calculations but still low enough to force a runoff, according to a statement.
In a sign that political fissures are not completely smoothed over, the commission, which is thought to be loyal to Karzai, said it still had "some reservations" about the fraud rulings but decided to announce the runoff because of "time constraints, the imminent arrival of winter and existence of the problems in the country."
There are serious worries that a runoff — which Karzai is widely expected to win — may not produce any better result.
Risk of more fraud
Another election risks the same fraud that derailed the Aug. 20 vote, along with inciting violence and increasing ethnic divisions. If there are any delays, the vote could also be hampered by winter snows that block off much of the north of the country starting mid-November.
At the U.N., Ban issued a warning to Afghan election officials.
"First of all, we will advise the Independent Election Commission not to re-recruit those officials who might have been involved in fraudulent electoral processes," Ban said. "And we will ensure to make all administrative and technical (measures) to ensure that this election will be carried out in a most fair and transparent manner."
In his own remarks, Karzai emphasized the need for security.
"I hope that the international community and the Afghan government and all others concerned will take every possible measure to provide security to the people so that when they vote, that vote is not called a fraud," Karzai said.
The August poll was characterized by Taliban attacks on polling stations and government buildings that killed dozens of people. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted.
Concerns over turnout
Taliban threats dampened turnout in the first round and many say even fewer people would come out in a runoff. This time, there will be no provincial elections on the same ballot to increase turnout.
Yet in Kandahar city — a Karzai stronghold that was plagued by both violence and ballot-box stuffing on election day — a group of about 90 tribal elders who back the president said they would tell their people to come out to vote.
"We are very happy he didn't agree to a coalition government and all of our tribes have decided today that we will take part in a runoff election," said Fazel Uddin Agha, a middle-aged elder who spoke for the group.
"This election we will give even more votes to Karzai," Agha said.