- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fresh signs that Afghanistan’s recent presidential election may require a recount could complicate the already vexing decision that President Obama faces on his administration’s Afghan war strategy.

Some observers think a recount - if a power-sharing agreement cannot be reached - will provide enough of a toehold for Mr. Obama to make at least a preliminary decision about continued U.S. investment in the war-torn nation.

“It’s what the administration wanted almost from the outset. They wanted the runoff,” said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think they knew that the election wasn’t just illegitimate, but grossly illegitimate. And they knew there would be no acceptance of the results.”

Mr. Gelb, who is close to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said he thinks the White House will in the next two weeks announce an increase of 10,000 to 15,000 more troops. And, he suspects Mr. Obama will not deviate much from the current strategy, preferring instead to postpone the decision of whether to send the roughly 40,000 additional troops that the top U.S. general in Afghanistan has requested.

“They’ll say, ‘Here is our approach,’ which is not going to differ wildly from what [Mr. Obama] said in March,” predicted Mr. Gelb, referring to the president’s first major review of Afghan strategy. “But he’ll put more emphasis on training the Afghans and doing it more rapidly.”

Others, however, think continued instability within the Afghan government - made more pronounced by claims of widespread election fraud - will only spell trouble for the White House.

“A further delay in electing a government will increase the pressure to make military decisions that cannot wait without knowing whether we have a legitimate Afghan partner,” said Bruce Riedel, a specialist on the region at the Brookings Institution who earlier this year coordinated the first review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the president.

On Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai continued to resist mounting international pressure to accept fraud rulings that could force him into a runoff with his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Mr. Karzai spoke by phone separately to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Mr. Karzai’s office said, according to Reuters news agency.

The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission had been expected to release findings on Saturday from its investigation into allegations of widespread fraud - most of it favoring Mr. Karzai - in the country’s Aug. 20 election. Preliminary figures showed Mr. Karzai won with more than 54 percent of the vote.

But the panel’s announcement was delayed as commission members spent Saturday in meetings with Afghan election officials and double-checking calculations, according to people familiar with the talks, the Associated Press reported from Kabul.

Last week, Mr. Karzai admitted in an interview with ABC that some corruption occurred in the election, but said that overall, his victory over Mr. Abdullah was “good and fair and worthy of praise.” But Mr. Abdullah and international observers have contended that the fraud was pervasive.

Rumors swirled Saturday about increasing pressure from the U.S. on Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah to form a coalition government. The challenger has said he may be open to such a move, but only after the commission’s report is made public.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has made it his goal to gain the trust of the Afghan people and simultaneously build up the Afghan army and governmental institutions so that they can stand up to the Taliban themselves.

But key to Gen. McChrystal’s equation is having an Afghan government that is viewed by the majority of the country’s population as legitimate.

The White House, which has said it was not waiting for the outcome of two probes into the election to be finished before Mr. Obama decides on a strategy and troop commitment, was noncommittal about whether a recount would impact its decision.

“Of course, whether or not there’s a runoff … the final results will be factored in just like everything else happening in the region, into the final assessment of our strategy there,” deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said during Mr. Obama’s trip to Texas on Friday.

Mrs. Clinton also said that Mr. Obama will “make a decision on his own timetable, when he is absolutely comfortable with what he believes is in the best interest of the United States.”

“I think that we have taken into account every possible outcome as we have engaged in our strategic analysis,” Mrs. Clinton said during an interview with CNN.

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