WASHINGTON With a run-off looming in the disputed Afghan poll, U.S. officials are pressing President Hamid Karzai to accept whatever outcome emerges -- either agree to a second round soon or cut a power-sharing deal.
While conceding there are no "best outcomes" from the fraud-marred August election, a senior U.S. official said the over-riding message to Karzai was that for his country to succeed there must be a legitimate Afghan government.
The worst scenario, said officials and experts, would be for Karzai to reject both a run-off and attempts by third parties to broker a power-sharing arrangement with Abdullah Abdullah, his main challenger, and others.
That scenario "would be highly unlikely," said a senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive. "Afghans will go to a certain stage but they probably won't self-destruct."
A U.N.-backed fraud watchdog has invalidated tens of thousands of votes for Karzai from August's first round, giving him less than the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off, international election observers said on Monday.
Former U.S. ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, returned from Kabul on Monday and said Karzai was willing to "power-share" and that differences with Abdullah appeared to be in the timing of such an agreement.
"The international community and the Obama administration appear to favor the unity government rather than an election," said Khalilzad. "But you could get a government which is weak and divided and it would not have strong legitimacy," cautioned Khalilzad, who met both Karzai and Abdullah during his trip.
The Obama administration refuses to comment publicly on the most desired option but it sees three possible scenarios -- either a run-off next month or one early next spring when the weather improves, with an interim government until then. The third is for key candidates to form a broad-based government.
"If the leading candidates come to an arrangement that is constitutional and wider than a division of the spoils and is in Afghanistan's interests, then we would not want to stand in its way," the senior official said.
MORE PRESSURE ON OBAMA?
With electoral authorities in Afghanistan likely to make a decision soon over a run-off, this piles pressure on President Barack Obama to move ahead with a decision on a new Afghan strategy and whether to hike troop levels by at least 40,000, as recommended by his military commander.
With flagging public support for the war and some dissent within his own Democratic Party, Obama is also concerned he may not get the congressional support he needs for additional troops without a credible Afghan partner.
"That is at the heart of all of this," said the senior official. "It is important for the United States to have a partner in Afghanistan that is seen as legitimate and credible and can govern effectively."
Key White House aid Rahm Emanuel and leading Democratic Senator John Kerry have both driven home this message.
"You can't do a serious counterinsurgency with a flawed local partner," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led the Obama administration's March policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Riedel said Obama was trapped between trying to fix the Afghan election while unifying his own party on the issue.
"He needs to bring those together in the next two weeks and answer the outstanding request from his generals on the battlefield," said Riedel.
Republicans are pushing Obama to hurry up, saying the lives of U.S. troops are at risk. Yet others on both sides of the aisle argue it is more important to get the strategy right and take time.
"There is a fine line between debate and dithering. Given that we are in a wartime situation it is very important that the Obama administration completes the debate as quickly as possible," said Lisa Curtis of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, agreed that Obama needed to move ahead quickly with his decision and he could not afford to wait and see what a new government might look like.
"There is a sense of limbo right now and what the U.S. is going to do. That creates a drift and this is not good in Afghanistan," he added.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)