KABUL — Facing Taliban threats and approaching winter snows, Afghan election officials must now scramble to organize a runoff presidential election on Nov. 7 after a grim President Hamid Karzai bowed to intense U.S. pressure and acknowledged Tuesday that he fell short of a majority.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it will be a "huge challenge" to pull off new balloting without repeating the widespread fraud that caused U.N.-backed investigators to strip Karzai of nearly a third of his votes from the Aug. 20 first-round election.
Although Karzai's capitulation was a relief to American officials and averted a constitutional crisis, new balloting carries with it the risk of low turnout or another round of wholesale ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation. Another failed election would bring the Obama administration no closer to its goal of a credible, legitimate Afghan government necessary to win public support in the U.S. for the war and reverse the Taliban rise.
If the election goes relatively well, it's unclear that a second-round win by Karzai, widely considered the favorite over former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, would erase the stain brought on his leadership by widespread fraud in the first balloting Aug. 20.
Karzai, standing alongside Sen. John Kerry and U.N. mission chief Kai Eide, said he welcomed the runoff. He called the decision to hold a second round "legitimate, legal and according to the constitution of Afghanistan."
"We believe it will strengthen the process of democratization in Afghanistan," he said. "It's going to be a historic period."
But Karzai did not express regret over massive fraud – most of it on his behalf – uncovered by U.N.-backed investigators after the first election.
"This is not the right time to discuss investigations," Karzai said, speaking exactly two months after the first election. "This is the time to move forward toward stability and national unity."
Karzai appeared before reporters moments after the government election commission accepted the findings of the auditors that the president fell short of a majority. The Karzai-influenced commission released preliminary results last month that showed the president winning with more than 54 percent out of a field of 36 candidates.
Agreement came at the end of a day of intensive talks between Karzai and Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He praised the Afghan leader for "genuine leadership in the decision he has made today." The two men met at least four times before the announcement.
An Afghan who is close to Karzai told The Associated Press that both Kerry and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made clear that the United States and its international partners could not accept the results of an election that was so tainted by fraud. The Afghan spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Although accepting a new election, Karzai demonstrated flashes of irritation, occasionally glancing at his watch as the news conference dragged on. Karzai supporters had complained of interference by foreigners, especially those on the U.N.-backed panel, which investigated and reported the fraud.
Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, noted that most of the rejected ballots were from his power base in the Pashtun-dominated south, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest. He said those votes were "disrespected" and should be investigated further.
In an interview later with The Associated Press, Kerry described the evolution in Karzai's thinking.
"President Karzai really deeply believes he had won the election and ... that the international community was kind of conspiring to push for a different outcome," Kerry said in a telephone interview from Dubai. "He had people within his government, people within the election commission who felt they were being insulted about putting together a faulty election process."
"There were a lot of very deep feelings about Afghanistan's right to run its election, its competency in running it and so forth," Kerry continued.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said he called Karzai to thank him for having the interests of the "Afghan people at heart." He praised Karzai for displaying a commitment to the rule of law during a difficult time in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for Abdullah welcomed Karzai's acceptance of the results. Fazel Sancharaki added, however, that the Abdullah camp regretted it took so much arm-twisting to make it happen.
"From the very beginning Karzai knew that he would be below 50 percent and there would be a runoff, but he was not ready to accept it," Sancharaki said.
During days of intensive talks, a number of scenarios were discussed to avoid a runoff, including a power-sharing deal between the two candidates, according to Western officials familiar with the talks. However, Karzai ruled out such an option Tuesday, telling reporters "there is no space for a coalition government in the law."
Karzai, son of a Pashtun tribal chief, was installed as chairman of the transitional administration that led the country after the hardline Islamist government collapsed. He was warmly embraced by the Bush administration but fell out of favor over allegations of weak leadership, government corruption and his ties to warlords.
Abdullah, an ophthalmologist, was a close ally of legendary anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. He became spokesman of the government that replaced the Taliban and later served as Karzai's foreign minister.
The Afghan commission and its U.N. advisers now face the daunting task of organizing another election. Among other things, officials must replace at least 200 district election officials linked to the Aug. 20 abuses.
In New York, Ban said the United Nations would try to make sure the runoff occurs in a "free, fair, transparent and secure environment."
"There's a huge challenge in conducting a second (round of) elections Nov. 7," he said. "The United Nations will ensure to provide more necessary technical assistance."
U.S. and Afghan forces must also provide security for the balloting to prevent a repeat of Taliban attacks in August that killed dozens. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted.
Spirited contests for provincial councils helped raise the August turnout. This time, only Karzai and Abdullah will be on the ballot – and it will be colder.
Yet in Kandahar city, a Karzai stronghold, a group of about 90 tribal elders who back the president said they would tell their followers to turn out and 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.
Associated Press Writers Todd Pitman and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Noor Khan in Kandahar, Edith M. Lederer and John Heilprin at the United Nations and Andrew Miga in Washington contributed to this report.