World and Nation

Afghan Leader Is Said to Accept Runoff Election

Under international pressure, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan appears set to concede as early as Tuesday that he fell short of a first-round victory in the nation’s disputed presidential election, but the path to ensuring that the country has credible leadership remains uncertain, U.S. and European officials said Monday.

The officials said Karzai was moving toward accepting the findings of an international audit that stripped him of nearly a third of his votes in the first round, leaving him below the 50 percent threshold that would have allowed him to avoid a runoff and declare victory over his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah.

Karzai’s apparent capitulation came after an all-out push by Obama administration officials and their European allies. But even if Karzai ends his strong resistance to a runoff, that would not resolve the country’s political crisis, officials say. It would be difficult to hold a new election quickly, as winter approaches, and delaying the selection of a new government until the spring could allow the Taliban to make further gains across the country.

As a result, some Obama administration officials, who say a pending decision on whether to increase troop levels in the country depends partly on the resolving the election outcome, now argue that they should push Karzai and Abdullah to form a coalition government to avoid a runoff altogether.

During a hastily-arranged two-hour meeting with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., an important foreign policy ally of President Barack Obama, and the U.S. ambassador, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, at the presidential palace in Kabul on Monday, Karzai, after initially hesitating, agreed to accept the findings, the officials said.

“He is going to announce his intentions,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at the State Department in Washington. “I am going to let him do that, but I am encouraged at the direction the situation is moving.”

But several administration officials cautioned that Karzai could still change his mind.

For Karzai, the decision to acquiesce to the demands of the international community puts him in the position of disappointing his followers, including people who showed up at the polls despite widespread threats from the Taliban to disrupt the elections.

“The dilemma for Karzai is that because of the tribal nature of Afghan society, if a constituency is angry at having a significant number of votes denied and reacts by withholding their vote in the next round, it could change the result,” said a senior administration official.

The United States, this official said, is sympathetic to Karzai’s concerns, but Clinton urged him in calls over the last few days, to be a “statesman” and accept the results.

For the Obama administration, the decision prolongs an already lengthy election process that has left them with a variety of options, none of them ideal. There is a growing debate within the administration and among Western allies about whether to urge Karzai and Abdullah to try to form a power-sharing or unity government in lieu of a runoff, administration officials said.