KABUL — After nearly 20 hours of tense, exhausting talks over four days, Sen. John Kerry was convinced by midday Tuesday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had accepted the need for a runoff election. But as dignitaries and reporters gathered at the presidential palace in Kabul for the 1 p.m. announcement, Karzai was still not ready.
While the world waited, Karzai and Kerry took a long walk through the secluded palace grounds. As they passed among the rose bushes and toured the presidential mosque, Karzai reiterated his conviction that he had been cheated out of a legitimate victory. The Massachusetts Democrat restated his case that Karzai had to put his country first and that it would be hard, maybe impossible, for Afghanistan — or the United States — to move ahead without a second round.
"We talked about a lot of things — the way forward, personal things," Kerry said later. At 4:30, an unsmiling Karzai finally appeared before the waiting cameras to endorse a Nov. 7 runoff between him and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Resolution of the high political drama in Kabul, the culmination of days of intense pressure on Karzai by the Obama administration and NATO allies, allows the White House to return to deliberations over how to proceed in the faltering Afghanistan war. President Barack Obama, who had not spoken to Karzai during the election talks, telephoned "the American people's appreciation for this step."
"President Karzai, as well as the other candidates," Obama told reporters, "have shown that they have the interests of the Afghan people at heart."
Senior administration officials were quick to acknowledge that the end of the runoff dispute was only one step on a long road. The new election, to be held as the harsh Afghan winter begins, faces perils ranging from Taliban attacks to a repeat of the first-round fraud that resulted in Karzai's accumulating nearly a million illegal votes, according to a U.N.-backed panel that this week stripped him of a preliminary majority.
Even if the runoff proceeds smoothly and Karzai wins, as widely anticipated, he remains, in the administration's view, a less-than-ideal partner, unable or unwilling to end the corruption and inefficiency that have marked his five years in office.
White House discussions on deploying the tens of thousands of troops requested by the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan will continue for several more weeks. Whatever Obama decides will be criticized by many in Congress and among the public, where support for his handling of the eight-year war has been falling rapidly.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the administration was moving toward a decision on its Afghanistan strategy and that military operations were ongoing. U.S. soldiers, he said, were "not all just staying in their tents while we wait the outcome of the election."
Flanked by Kerry, U.N. special envoy Kai Eide and the U.S., French and British ambassadors, Karzai called on Afghans "to change this into an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and determination to move this country forward and participate in the new round of elections."
Abdullah, who also received a call from Obama, scheduled his own news conference for today.