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By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Re-elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai will confront a wall of pressure from the Obama administration in his next term if he wants to sustain U.S. support.
Karzai’s victory was expected but the way it unfolded and questions over his credibility undermine President Barack Obama’s ability to sell his strategy overhaul for the war in Afghanistan to an increasingly skeptical U.S. public.
Afghan election officials declared Karzai president for another five-year term after scrapping an election run-off following the withdrawal of his only rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who doubted the credibility of the election process.
Experts say what counts from now on is how Karzai chooses to govern and if he shows willingness to tackle corruption and deliver services to a population embittered by eight years of war and doubtful of their leader’s capacity.
If Karzai fails to perform, the repercussions will be felt not only domestically but also in the United States, where questions will mount over the logic of devoting scarce U.S. resources to propping up a government elected on a tide of fraud and vote-rigging.
IS IT BETTER OR WORSE THAT THE RUN-OFF WAS CANCELED?
U.S. officials have said repeatedly the election cycle should be allowed to run its course but privately many are relieved that Abdullah pulled out and a second round was avoided.
There were fears of more violence in the second round and that the Nov. 7 run-off could have been more fraudulent than the August election, further tainting Karzai’s rule. The downside is that Karzai has less legitimacy than before.
Afghanistan expert Daniel Markey said what happened was one of the worst possible outcomes for the United States. "Karzai is back in power but is in a weaker position," said Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the Brookings Institution’s Michael O‘Hanlon said at least the "train wreck" of a second round was avoided and the pressure was now on Karzai to prove the critics wrong.
WITH THE ELECTION NOW OVER, WHAT WILL THE U.S. FOCUS BE?
The Obama administration has delivered a firm message to Karzai that he needs to tackle corruption.
Several experts said Karzai must stake out his intentions early on and offer a blueprint for how he will punish those who sustain a culture of corruption, possibly including the appointment of inspector-generals in key ministries.
One question is whether Karzai will fill key cabinet posts like interior, finance and defense with cronies who want to be rewarded for their efforts to get him re-elected.
While pledging to cooperate with Karzai, U.S. officials say they will also work around him if needed and target officials and local leaders with a track record of better governance.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday she hoped Abdullah would remain "engaged" in the political process in Afghanistan. Some have suggested Abdullah be given a central role in government but others doubt he would want it.
DOES THIS PUT MORE PRESSURE ON OBAMA TO ANNOUNCE A DECISION ON HIS STRATEGY OVERHAUL?
John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, said the scrapping of the run-off removed the "pretext for delaying the decision on giving General (Stanley) McChrystal the resources he needs to achieve our goals in Afghanistan."
Obama could make his announcement before leaving for a trip to Asia on Nov. 11 but officials and diplomats say it is possible he could wait until after his return on Nov. 20. "It’s really anybody’s guess," said one diplomatic source.
HOW MIGHT THE ELECTION OUTCOME AFFECT OBAMA‘S DECISION?
Obama has been presented with a multitude of options, from sending in an additional 10,000-15,000 troops to deploying anything up to 80,000 more.
With the legitimacy of Karzai’s government in question, there might be an argument for Obama to decide on the lower end of troop recommendations and adopt a phased approach.
For example, Obama may want to wait to see who is put in the key ministries before dedicating more U.S. forces. By offering the carrot of more resources for better governance, the United States would also retain more leverage over Karzai.
HOW MIGHT THIS PLAY OUT WITH THE U.S. PUBLIC AND CONGRESS?
Whatever Obama decides, he faces pressure from his own Democratic Party and the Republicans. The left-wing of his party will question why U.S. resources are being used to bolster a government whose credibility is dubious, fueling calls for a withdrawal timetable.
Among many Republicans, there will be a call to boost U.S. efforts to prevent another attack akin to Sept. 11, 2001, with accusations that Obama, who took office in January, is soft on security.
All of this takes place against a backdrop of flagging public support for the war and fears that a Vietnam-style quagmire in Afghanistan will have an impact on mid-term congressional elections next November.
The worst-case scenario would be if Karzai continued the same style of governance and made little or no effort to stamp out corruption.
"Then we will be seen as propping up an illegitimate government and that will not be tolerated," said Karin von Hippel of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (Editing by Simon Denyer and John O‘Callaghan)