WASHINGTON — Despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s acquiescence to a runoff election, US policymakers fear their hardest task may be yet ahead: ensuring the vote’s credibility after a fraud-marred first round.
The United States and its allies have little more than two weeks before the November 7 runoff, for which the two major candidates and the electoral machinery remain the same.
Bruce Riedel, who led President Barack Obama’s strategy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year, said that Tuesday’s announcement of a second round was “the best of some bad options.”
“It now needs extraordinary follow-up by the international community very, very quickly to make sure the second round is free from the fraud we saw in the first round,” Riedel, a former CIA officer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told AFP.
“A second fiasco will be the end of this. There can’t be a third round,” he said.
A UN-backed watchdog threw out about a quarter of all votes cast in the first round two months ago — mostly for Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since 2001 when a US-led military operation ousted the extremist Taliban regime.
Karzai agreed to the runoff after intense pressure from Obama and other Western leaders including a mission to Kabul by John Kerry, who heads the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.
The Obama administration has been cooler to Karzai than his predecessor George W. Bush, privately airing concern at what it sees as the Afghan leader’s reluctance to rein in corruption.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel sent a thinly veiled warning to Karzai on Sunday, hinting Obama may hold off on sending more troops to Afghanistan without a credible partner.
On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers said they would closely watch the second round as Obama considers a request from Afghanistan war commander Stanley McChrystal to dispatch thousands more troops to fight Taliban insurgents.
“The issue here is that you have a president, Karzai, who has already been tainted with running a fraudulent election,” said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who usually votes with Obama’s Democrats.
“The American people have doubts about a partnership with a government which from a political perspective, and also from an economic perspective, is pretty corrupt,” he said.
Senator Susan Collins, a member of the rival Republican Party who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said it was critical to hold the second round of voting “as quickly as possible.”
“There’s been a cloud over the legitimacy of the Karzai government ever since the election results,” she said.
US diplomat Peter Galbraith, whom the United Nations sacked as number two in its Kabul mission after he pressed for stronger action to stop election fraud, was cautious about a second round.
“If the runoff is a rerun of the previous election, it doesn’t accomplish much,” he told AFP.
Galbraith said the international community needed to press to shut down or fix polling stations where there was ballot stuffing — bypassing Afghanistan’s election commission which he called a partisan, pro-Karzai body.
“The election commission staff in places where fraud took place should be fired or replaced with honest people,” he said.
Galbraith’s questioning of as many as 30 percent of the votes raised hackles with the United Nations, but the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission on Monday reached similar conclusions.
Scott Mastic, a regional director for the International Republican Institute, a non-profit US group that monitored the first round, said the watchdog commission in the end played an “extremely crucial role.”
The body came up “with a conclusion that has helped the second round move forward in a way that may salvage the election process overall,” Mastic said.
“But ultimately the election is going to be about whether Afghans see it as credible,” he said.