KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai won the presidential vote outright in the first round, election officials said on Wednesday, but the European Union said more than a third of his votes might be suspect because of fraud.
A disputed result would prove difficult for U.S. President Barack Obama, who is considering deploying more troops and who set out broad goals on Wednesday for boosting the ability of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight militancy.
Afghan election authorities issued complete preliminary results showing Karzai received 54.6 percent of the vote last month. His main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, got 27.8 percent.
The results are not final until approved by a separate election fraud watchdog, which has called for a recount of about 10 percent of polling stations.
But a campaign spokesman for Karzai said the result made it almost impossible that any probe could overturn the outcome. Only a “miracle” for his opponents could prevent Karzai winning, Waheed Omar said.
A spokesman for Abdullah had no immediate reaction.
A final result pending the fraud probe could be weeks away, prolonging a state of political limbo that has led to fears of instability and concern among Western donors that a future government may lack a clear mandate.
A European Union election observer mission said it believed as many as 1.5 million votes — including 1.1 million cast for Karzai — were “suspicious”.
“Any claim for any count or of victory will be premature and not credible,” the head of the EU mission, Philippe Morillon, told Reuters.
Karzai’s campaign called the EU mission’s statement “irresponsible” and said only the official, U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission was empowered to find fraud.
Ali Najafi, a member of the Afghan election commission, also criticized the EU mission for coming forward with its assessment before the complaints process was complete.
“Observers observe. They can give advice to the (election commission) but they do not have the right to interfere,” he said. Asked about the votes the EU team described as suspicious, he said: “I don’t know where they got this figure from.”
Western officials initially hailed the August 20 election, mainly because militant attacks failed to prevent it from taking place despite a resurgent Taliban insurgency.
One of the Obama administration’s objectives delivered to lawmakers on Wednesday was to promote a more capable, accountable and effective government in Afghanistan, according to a draft document obtained by Reuters.
It also wants to defeat the insurgency and develop the Afghan security forces so the U.S. role can be reduced. Obama also wants to develop neighboring Pakistan’s counterinsurgency capabilities to defeat insurgent groups.
The war, launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks to root out al Qaeda and topple the group’s Taliban backers, is becoming increasingly unpopular at home and Obama may find it difficult to persuade Americans to send soldiers to defend a government whose legitimacy could be called into question.
Obama told White House reporters there was “no immediate decision pending on resources,” a day after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said more troops would probably be needed and that he expected a request from Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, in a couple of weeks.
The United States almost doubled its number of troops in Afghanistan this year to 62,000, partly to help secure the election. The number is expected to grow by another 6,000 by year’s end.
Fraud accusations have been especially heavy in southern areas that favor Karzai but where Taliban threats had the most impact on turnout.
The EU’s Morillon said fraud had been carried out by “unscrupulous, overzealous supporters ... from every camp.”
In addition to the 1.1 million suspect ballots for Karzai, his team found 300,000 suspicious ballots for Abdullah. Disqualifying ballots for Karzai would have the most impact, by potentially putting the president below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off vote.
The final tally showed Karzai with 3.1 million votes of the 5.7 million valid votes counted. If all the votes considered suspect by the EU were omitted, Karzai would have 2 million out of 4.2 million valid votes, shy of 50 percent.
The U.N.-backed ECC must sign off on any final result. A second election round, if needed, would have to be held within two weeks of the final result being declared, although there has been some concern that this could be difficult if it is delayed into winter when travel is difficult in Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous in Washington; Editing by Alison Williams and Frances Kerry