WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Tuesday applaudedAfghan President Hamid Karzai for accepting election fraud findings that invalidated nearly a third of the votes cast for him in August.
Obama said the breakthrough offers new hope that a credible Kabul government will emerge to partner with the U.S. and NATO in battling a resurgent Taliban insurgency and blocking al-Qaida’s return.
Obama told reporters that he spoke by phone with the Afghan president after Karzai bowed to U.S. pressure and announced that he agreed to a runoff election Nov. 7, acknowledging that he fell short of a majority in the first balloting.
The original vote count had put Karzai well above the 50 percent mark he needed to be declared the outright winner, but a U.N.-based investigation determined that hundreds of thousands of his votes were tainted. Until Tuesday it was unclear whether Karzai would accept the findings and agree to a runoff.
"President Karzai and the other candidates have shown that they have the interests of the Afghan people at heart," Obama said. "This is a reflection of a commitment to the rule of law and the insistence that the Afghan people’s will should be done."
In his remarks at the White House, Obama praised the work of U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who was joined in talks in Kabul over the weekend by Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama also acknowledged the work of American troops fighting in Afghanistan.
In an Associated Press telephone interview from Dubai, Kerry said Tuesday that Karzai had felt deeply aggrieved by the pressure put on him to accept a runoff and the implication of Afghan incompetence.
"President Karzai really deeply believes he had won the election and he felt the process was flawed and he felt that the international community was kind of conspiring to push for a different outcome," Kerry said.
"He felt very deeply about the flaws of the process. He had people within his government, people within theelection commission who felt they were being insulted about putting together a faulty election process. There were a lot of very deep feelings about Afghanistan’s right to run its election, its competency in running it and so forth."
Obama put a positive spin on Karzai’s decision.
"President Karzai‘s constructive actions established an important precedent for Afghanistan’s new democracy," Obama said in a statement issued earlier Tuesday. "The Afghan constitution and laws are strengthened by President Karzai’s decision, which is in the best interests of the Afghan people."
In reviewing its strategy for the war in Afghanistan — including contemplation of sending tens of thousands more U.S. troops next year — the White House has publicly questioned whether the Afghan government is too corrupt to serve as a worthwhile partner in the fight against a Taliban insurgency.
Administration officials on Tuesday appeared to signal that Karzai had taken a step in the right direction.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed Karzai’s announcement as a boost for Afghan democracy. She made no direct mention of the fraudulent Karzai votes that were thrown out, although she referred to "a rough and contentious" election and weeks of "debate over the flaws in the vote."
"We remain committed to partnering with the Afghan people and their government on our shared objectives of strengthening good governance, tackling corruption, increasing economic opportunities and improving security for all Afghans," she said in a written statement.
Obama remains under pressure from some Republicans to complete his strategy review and decide on troop levels.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading advocate of bolstering U.S. troop levels, said Tuesday he was pleased by Karzai’s decision and argued that improved security is the key to building a credible Kabul government.
"It is unrealistic to expect Afghan governance to improve significantly without improved security," McCain said. "That is why it is essential to implement the properly resourced counterinsurgency strategy that Gen. Stanley McChrystal and our senior commanders have called for, and that is why I continue to urge President Obama to provide our military and civilian leaders in Afghanistan with the resources they need as quickly as possible."
The White House said Obama also called Eikenberry to thank him for his collaborative work with Kerry and to get an update on the election situation. Obama also called Abdullah Abdullah, the former Afghan foreign minister who came in second in the August vote and will face off against Karzai on Nov. 7.
Eikenberry and Kerry had been deeply engaged with Karzai and other Afghan government officials over the past several days, apparently succeeding in persuading Karzai that he must accept the fraud probe results.
Kerry, who had met with Karzai at least four times before the announcement, was at the Afghan president’s side when the announcement was made in Kabul.
In interviews over the weekend from Kabul, Kerry said the election process had to be settled before the Obama administration could make a reasoned decision about whether to send additional troops and to commit other resources to stabilizing Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, said the Obama administration needs to decide on a war strategy and not "sit on our hands" waiting for election results and a government to emerge in Kabul. In remarks to reporters traveling with him to Asia, the Pentagon chief said Obama will have to make his decisions in the context of "evolving" issues.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said it has not been determined whether Obama will wait to announce an Afghan strategy until after the results of the runoff. Gibbs told reporters he still expects that announcement to be made in "the coming weeks."
Regardless of the election’s outcome, Gibbs said, "We’ve got to make sure we’re making progress with a partner in that government." He also said the next U.S. strategy meeting on Afghanistan may be pushed back until early next week because Gates and Vice President Joe Biden are traveling abroad.
Obama was widely expected to decide on the next steps in Afghanistan before he begins an extended trip to Asia next month.