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Afghan election poses new tests for Washington
KABUL, Aug 22 (Agencies):
Published on 22 Aug. 2009 11:09 PM IST
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Obama administration officials hoped the Afghan election would demonstrate that eight years after the American invasion, the country was stable enough to justify an expanded commitment of money and troops from an increasingly skeptical American public. Instead, the election did more to underscore the challenges Afghanistan faces, particularly if the election goes to a runoff, as seems increasingly likely, between President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. Both men claimed to be winning as ballots were counted Friday, though officials said preliminary results would not be announced until Tuesday, and final results at least two weeks later. In the meantime, complaints of fraud and specific episodes of ballot stuffing mounted, and they may assume increasing importance. Western officials here expressed relief that many Afghans defied Taliban threats of reprisals and came out to vote. But they were clearly concerned on Friday that a second round of voting could extend the paralysis of a government that already barely functions and deepen ethnic tensions, in the worst case, to the point of a north-south civil war. In addition, a runoff would leave up in the air many of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy initiatives like fighting corruption and improving distribution of aid for at least another two months, American officials said. The new uncertainties come on top of the stiff military challenges facing the Obama administration as it sends thousands more troops to southern Afghanistan, where Taliban attacks and very low turnout on election day made clear the insurgents’ influence. The southern province of Kandahar alone was hit by 122 Taliban rockets on election day, mainly aimed at the towns, according to one Western official. In a broad southern region provinces like Kandahar, Helmand, Oruzgan and Zabul turnout was as low as 5 percent to 10 percent, the official said, effectively disenfranchising the region viewed as the most crucial in the American-led military campaign. Privately, American officials set out a number of possible ways that the election aftermath could affect their operations. During a meeting on Thursday, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO combat operations here, discussed how the military would have to adapt to each. Particularly worrisome was the specter of a divisive ethnic presidential runoff between Mr. Karzai, whose power base is in the Pashtun south, and Mr. Abdullah, whose main support resides in the Tajik and Uzbek north, officials said. Mr. Karzai himself has in the past raised the specter of ethnic violence, telling officials that if there was a runoff it could lead to a civil war, Western officials said. “Ethnic violence is always a factor in this country,” one senior administration official said. “But,” she added, “it is not inevitable.” “Everybody is jumping on that bandwagon looking at a Tajik leader and a Pashtun leader,” she said, referring to Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Karzai. “But this country has been through civil war, and at a time when it seemed that somebody in one of the campaigns had suggested there would be ethnic violence, it was Afghans who were the first out there saying, ‘We’re not going back to the 1990s.’ “ For all of their worry about the problems that a runoff could bring, administration officials have also made clear they are not enamored of the Karzai government, and the president’s re-election would not be risk-free, either. Mr. Obama, during his first news conference as president, criticized the Karzai government as “detached.” And administration officials have complained of Mr. Karzai’s failure to crack down on corruption and the drug trafficking fueling the insurgency. Western officials have also criticized Mr. Karzai’s alliances with unsavory figures to try to secure re-election. Should Mr. Karzai win, either outright or in a second round, Obama administration officials could find themselves with a president who has engaged in so much deal-making that he may well be even more beholden to warlords than before. With potential shoals in just about every direction, American officials were taking pains to present a neutral public front. “Our only interest was the result, fairly, accurately reflecting the will of the Afghan people,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House. Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the region, who was in Kabul, described the administration as “agnostic,” although American officials took issue with statements Friday from Mr. Karzai’s camp that the president had won the vote already. “We’ve seen these reports,” Mr. Holbrooke said. He added that only the Afghan election commission was is in a position to announce official results. But he was braced for tensions. “We always knew it would be a disputed election,” he said. “I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days. For the United States and the international community, we’re going to respect the process.” Mr. Holbrooke met privately on Friday with the leading candidates, he said: “We’re in a period where the outcome is unclear so everyone is kind of upbeat and spinning positively. Everyone said that they would respect the process. This is not dissimilar to an American election. I keep comparing it to Minnesota, because when an outcome is uncertain, people have different views of it. We don’t have a candidate and we don’t have a favorite outcome.” Western diplomats said that if there was a runoff, it would be widely seen as a blow to Mr. Karzai and a boost for Mr. Abdullah. The election had more than 30 candidates, and the presumption was that many of those who did not vote for Mr. Karzai could now coalesce around Mr. Abdullah. Mr. Abdullah’s campaign team said it had made official complaints about fraud in six provinces. Election observers were varied in their early opinions, with some saying the low turnout was an indication of just how bad the situation is in southern Afghanistan, and others saying that just holding an election was a success. “This was one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the last eight years,” Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan, said in a statement sent by e-mail. But Western and Afghan officials avoided such bleak assessments, emphasizing the Taliban’s failure to thwart the vote, the first democratic elections ever staged by the government of Afghanistan. “Before 2001, Afghan leaders were shooting each other out in the countryside and shouting at each other over the radio,” said Barnett Rubin, a senior adviser to Mr. Holbrooke. “Now they’re in Kabul, sometimes shouting at each other around the table, but working together to solve problems, and nobody wants to go back to the past.”

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