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Afghan runoff deal could buy Obama more time

Barack Obama has not decided whether to wait until after an Afghan presidential election run-off on Nov. 7 before announcing a new strategy in the country, the White House said on Tuesday.
/ Source: Reuters

President Barack Obama has not decided whether to wait until after an Afghan presidential election runoff on Nov. 7 before announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan, the White House said on Tuesday.

But the runoff agreement could buy Obama more time to make his decision since he might not be expected to unveil a new approach to the war while the political situation in Afghanistan remains so unsettled.

"Whether or not the president makes a decision before that I don't think has been determined. I continue to say that the decision will be made in the coming weeks as the president goes through an examination of our policy," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Earlier on Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he would agree to an election runoff, clearing the way for a second round of voting on Nov. 7 in which he will face challenger Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister.

The election on Aug. 20 was marred by widespread accusations of fraud and voting irregularities, complicating Obama's decision on whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.

Some U.S. officials have suggested that Obama may not wait for the outcome of the runoff election before deciding whether to approve a request by his top military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 or more reinforcements.

Not 'sit on our hands'
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, according to The Associated Press. 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.

Gibbs stressed that the United States, which has 68,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, already has a "sizable security force" there.

Regardless of the election's outcome, Gibbs said, "We've got to make sure we're making progress with a partner in that government." He also said the next U.S. strategy meeting on Afghanistan may be pushed back until early next week because Gates is traveling.

Among those most closely involved in seeking a resolution of the crisis is Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said in interviews over the weekend from Kabul that 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.

Kerry was at Karzai's side when the announcement was made in Kabul. He had met with Karzai on four occasions before the announcement.

Obama under pressure
Obama is under pressure from Republican opponents who argue that his painstaking review of his Afghan strategy is undermining U.S. troops in Afghanistan and emboldening their Taliban enemy. The White House, however, has dismissed suggestions that the president is being overly cautious.

Obama, who has held a series of meetings of his war council to consider the options in Afghanistan, on Tuesday welcomed Karzai's acceptance of a run-off election, saying it was an important step forward for democracy.

"It is now vital that all elements of Afghan society continue to come together to advance democracy, peace and justice. We look forward to a second round of voting, and the completion of the process to choose the president of Afghanistan," Obama said in a statement.

Some analysts say Karzai's acceptance of a second-round election could make it easier for Obama should he decide to send more troops. If Karzai had refused, it would have been politically risky for Obama to authorize a troop surge that would effectively prop up a leader whose legitimacy has been called into question.

Obama aides said over the weekend that Washington needed a credible partner in Kabul to help implement any new policy.

Polls show Americans are weary of the eight-year-old war and many within Obama's own Democratic party have spoken out against increased troop deployments.

Obama praised Karzai's "constructive actions" saying they established an important precedent for Afghanistan's new democracy.

Relations between Karzai and the Obama administration have been at a low point since the disputed election. Karzai was angered by Washington's refusal to recognize him as the winner of the poll.

"The Afghan constitution and laws are strengthened by President Karzai's decision, which is in the best interests of the Afghan people," Obama said.

More on: Afghanistan  |  Hamid Karzai  |  Stanley McChrystal