Karzai Using Rift With U.S. to Gain Favor With Afghans
By HELENE COOPER, New York Times, August 29, 2009
OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — A little over 24 hours after the polls closed, President Obama stepped out on the White House South Lawn last week to pronounce the Afghanistan presidential elections something of a success.
“This was an important step forward in the Afghan people’s effort to take control of their future, even as violent extremists are trying to stand in their way,” Mr. Obama said. “I want to congratulate the Afghanistan people on carrying out this historic election.”
But now, as reports mount of widespread fraud in the balloting, including allegations that supporters of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, illegally stuffed ballot boxes in the south and ripped up ballots cast for his opponents, Mr. Obama’s early praise may soon come back to haunt him.
Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission said Friday that it had received more than 2,000 complaints of fraud or abuse in last week’s election. Mr. Karzai’s biggest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, showed reporters video of a local election chief in one polling station stuffing ballot boxes himself.
The vote count has progressed very slowly in Afghanistan — as of Friday, preliminary results with 17 percent of the vote in gave Mr. Karzai 44 percent and Mr. Abdullah 35 percent. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, a runoff must be held between the top two candidates.
For Mr. Obama, who is on vacation here in Martha’s Vineyard, and his administration, it is the worst of all possible outcomes. Administration officials have made no secret of their growing disenchantment with Mr. Karzai, who is viewed by the West as having so compromised himself to try to get elected — including striking deals with accused drug dealers and warlords for political gain — that he will be a hindrance to international efforts to get the country on track after the election.
But Mr. Karzai, in a feat of political shrewdness that has surprised some in the Obama administration, has managed to turn that disenchantment to an advantage, portraying himself at home as the only political candidate willing to stand up to the dictates of the United States, according to Western officials.
Case in point: a meeting the day after the elections last week between Mr. Karzai and Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at Mr. Karzai’s presidential palace in Kabul.
A person familiar with the meeting, which also included Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, and the deputy ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., said that the three Americans went in to see Mr. Karzai and discussed two things: how Mr. Karzai would govern if he were re-elected, and how the elections had gone.
The three Americans told Mr. Karzai, the person said, that the United States was maintaining a neutral position in the elections, and that it would leave decisions about whether a runoff was needed to the Afghan elections commission and the electoral complaints commission.
Mr. Karzai told the Americans, according to this account, that he believed that he had won. Mr. Holbrooke, administration officials said, did not demand a runoff during the meeting, but did express concern about the complaints about fraud and ballot-box stuffing. The Americans left the meeting and described it as routine.
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