The Obama administration said on Monday that it now considers President Hamid Karzai to be the "legitimate" leader of Afghanistan, despite widespread concern over the corruption in that country's electoral process.
Speaking just hours after Karzai's main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew his name from a potential runoff election, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs moved swiftly (but with careful wording) to position the administration alongside the technically re-elected president.
"President Karzai has been declared the winner of the Afghan elections and will head the next government of Afghanistan," said Gibbs, "and so obviously he is the legitimate leader of the country."
Asked if the Afghanistan people, after witnessing the corruption that marred the first vote between Karzai and Abdullah, would question the legitimacy of the ultimate result, Gibbs replied: "I have no reason to believe [they would] not."
Not everyone was as chipper as Gibbs. In an email to the Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman, Peter Galbraith, the deputy head of the United Nations' mission to Afghanistan called the election a "total fiasco."
"We are now stuck with the same corrupt and inefficient [incumbent President Hamid] Karzai that we had for the last seven years but now he is also rightly seen as illegitimate by a large segment of the Afghan population and by public opinion in the troop contributing countries," Galbraith wrote. "No amount of spin can obscure the fact that we spent upwards of $200 miilion on an election that has been a total fiasco."
The White House press corps, too, wasn't exactly buying what Gibbs was selling, repeatedly peppering the press secretary with questions about what Karzai's win-by-default meant for his ability to lead his country.
"Dr. Abdullah made his own personal and political decision about this particular runoff," Gibbs said at one point. "I think if you look at these election results even after the investigation of allegations of fraud, which by the way worked, throwing out enough votes to require a second round and convincing President Karzai to participate in that (which was not, by any means, a given), I think even in that balloting you saw that dr. Abdullah trailed by fairly large margin, President Karzai. So I don't think there is any reasons to believe the afghan people won't think this government is as legitimate as it is."
The White House, of course, has few other options at this point than to embrace Karzai's election. With tens of thousands of U.S. troops currently fighting in Afghanistan and the likelihood of more to come, it would be nearly impossible for President Obama to sell the war to the American public if his own administration saw its government as fraudulent.
The president and Karzai, in fact, were speaking to each other over the phone at the same time as the press was grilling Gibbs.
As for the possibility of more troops heading to Afghanistan, the press secretary said that the election would likely hasten a decision, but that word would likely come down in a matter of weeks.
"This decision was not dependent upon when a leader was determined... This was not specifically predicated on when or if this election was held and who won," he said. "We obviously now know who the government is going to be... A decision, still, will be made in the upcoming weeks."
UPDATE: Obama, in a brief press availability on Monday afternoon, disclosed portions of his telephone conversation with Karzai.
Although the process was messy I'm pleased to say the final outcome was determined in accordance with Afghan law....
The American people and international community as a whole want to continue to partner with [Karzai] and his government...
I did emphasize that this has to be a point in time where we write a new chapter based on improved governance, a much more serious effort to eradicate corruption, joint efforts to accelerate the training of Afghan security forces... that kind of coordination and a sense on the part of President Karzai that after some difficult years in which there has been some drift, in fact, he is [now] going to move boldly forward in taking advantage of the international community's interest in his country....
He assured me that he understood the importance of this moment... But as I indicated to him the proof is not going to be in words. It is going to be in deeds.