KABUL, Afghanistan — Now comes the hard part.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under heavy pressure from the Obama administration, its allies and the United Nations, Tuesday accepted a final election tally that stripped him of hundreds of thousands of questionable votes in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 election and agreed to a Nov. 7 runoff with the second-place finisher, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
"We believe the decision is legitimate, legal and according to the constitution of Afghanistan," Karzai told a news conference at the Presidential Palace. "We are waiting to see our people ... go cast their votes."
However, in Afghanistan, where the real bargaining often begins after a deal is done, that's one small step in a huge undertaking that American officials hope will produce a new government that most Afghans will accept as legitimate, and one that will crack down on the rampant corruption and incompetence that have hampered the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.
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The success or failure of a runoff will play a large part in determining how President Barack Obama decides to move forward in Afghanistan. His top military commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is seeking as many as 80,000 additional American troops to improve security and train Afghan forces, but top administration officials have warned that Obama isn't likely to send them unless he's convinced that the U.S. has a credible partner in Kabul.
"This is a reflection of a commitment to the rule of law, an insistence that the Afghan people's will should be done," Obama told reporters in the White House after he called Karzai. "And so I expressed the American people's appreciation for this step."
The Taliban are less appreciative. Last week, a Taliban spokesman told McClatchy that his group would try to disrupt a new election, and the planned second-round vote will require a repeat of the massive military mobilization that supported the $300 million first round — this time on short notice as the winter snows approach and travel becomes more difficult.
Such a mobilization could be undertaken in the next two weeks, but it would require U.S., NATO and Afghan troops to divert from fighting an insurgency that's steadily expanded through much of Afghanistan, said Western military officials.
"The challenges of holding this election in an increasingly difficult security environment simply cannot be understated," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday in Kabul.
To deliver a credible result, a runoff also must avoid the industrial-strength fraud that tainted the first round despite the presence of international observers, two review commissions and other safeguards that could be hard to replicate on two weeks' notice.
"The important thing for us is that the election should be fair, and fraud should be prevented," said Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, Abdullah's campaign spokesman.
Given the international pressure on Karzai to agree to a runoff, a runoff also runs the risk of tainting the winner by reinforcing the common impression that foreigners have decided the outcome in advance.
At the news conference Tuesday at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Karzai was joined by Kerry; U.N. special representative Kai Eide and diplomats from the United States, Britain and France.
The gathering was intended as a show of unity after weeks of strained relations between Western nations and Karzai over the vote fraud documented by the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission. However, the image of the Afghan president flanked by so many Westerners also could reinforce Taliban efforts to portray Karzai as a puppet of a foreign occupation.
"This is an American process, and mainly the election has taken place in Washington," Zabiullah Mujahid, who speaks to reporters on behalf of the Taliban, said last week.
Finally, although all signs point to a Nov. 7 runoff, it's still possible that Karzai and Abdullah could agree to forgo that and instead form a unity government and commit to some of the political reforms that Abdullah and the West have sought.
A U.S. official in Washington, who spoke anonymously due to the sensitivity of his position, said that the Obama administration remains warm to that idea, and private talks could unfold in the days ahead.
In Kabul, however, there's little public support for abandoning a runoff, and Karzai said Afghan law doesn't allow a coalition government, so one would have no legitimacy.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor in Kabul and Jonathan S. Landay and Steven Thomma in Washington contributed to this article.)
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