WASHINGTON — Before President Barack Obama commits additional troops to Afghanistan, the United States needs assurances that Afghan leaders preside over a stable government that is seen as legitimate in the eyes of its citizens, top Democratic officials said in TV appearances Sunday.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, appearing on CNN's State of the Union, said the overriding question facing the Obama administration is whether it has "a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need."
The White House is in the midst of a full-scale review of its strategy in Afghanistan. Options include adding tens of thousands of troops in a renewed bid to stabilize the country, as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wants, or narrowing the mission to focus on subduing al-Qaida. The White House has devoted five meetings to its Afghanistan review, with more scheduled over the next two weeks, Emanuel said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is visiting Afghanistan, endorsed the White House's approach Sunday, saying it would be premature to pump new troops into Afghanistan without a clear picture of the nation's overall political condition. Kerry met with McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, during a visit that also included a stop in Pakistan.
"I don't see how President Obama can make a decision about the committing of our additional forces or even the further fulfillment of our mission that's here today without an adequate government in place or knowledge about what that government is going to be," Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CBS's Face the Nation. "So there's some very fundamental questions that have to be answered about the status of the Afghan government."
As of now, that status is unresolved. Preliminary election results showed Afghan President Hamid Karzai winning a majority of votes in the Aug. 20 presidential election, but the results were tainted by allegations of vote fraud.
A U.N.-backed commission's audit of the vote has been essentially completed, according to officials familiar with the recount process. But a separate Afghan-appointed election panel is disputing the methodology involved. Public disclosure of the results has been delayed repeatedly.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Sunday the disputed election should not be an excuse for the White House to drag out its review.
"At some point, deliberation begins to look more like indecisiveness, which then becomes a way of emboldening our enemies and allies and causing our allies to question our resolve," Cornyn said on Face the Nation.
Western diplomats in Kabul say there are growing fears Karzai will not accept the results if it is found, as appears likely, that his vote total has slipped below the majority he would need to avoid a runoff once fraudulent ballots are discarded.
Behind-the-scenes talks aimed at prompting the Afghan leader to agree in advance to accept the outcome of the recount, based on a statistical sampling of suspect ballots, have been unsuccessful.
Most of the diplomats involved have refused to comment on the substance of their discussions with Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. But one envoy, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, spoke Sunday of the international community's mounting frustration.
"It seems that not everybody is ready to accept the results," Kouchner told reporters in Kabul, without mentioning either Karzai or Abdullah by name. "They must accept the results."
Abdullah has said that the preliminary election results, giving Karzai more than 54 percent of the votes to his 28 percent, were based on massive fraud. On Sunday, his deputy campaign manager, Saleh Mohammad Registani, suggested the Afghan leader had engineered the delay in announcing the audit results.
"He is the obstacle," Registani said.
A Karzai campaign spokesman, Wahid Omar, denied the president was exerting improper influence over the process.
Because of the logistical difficulties of restaging an election before winter weather sets in, diplomats have proposed various formulas to Karzai, including some form of power-sharing with the Abdullah camp. But they have stressed that no such agreement can be made final unless the president accepts the findings of the vote audit.