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US Accepts Hamid Karzai as Afghan Leader Despite Poll Fraud Claims

by Giles Whittell in Washington
The White House has ended weeks of hesitation over how to respond to the Afghan election by accepting President Karzai as the winner despite evidence that up to 20 per cent of ballots cast may have been fraudulent.

Abandoning its previous policy of not prejudging investigations of vote rigging, the Obama Administration has conceded that Mr Karzai will be President for another five years on the basis that even if he were forced into a second round of voting he would almost certainly win it.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, pictured here on September 17, 2009. (AFP/File/Shah Marai) The decision will increase pressure on President Obama to justify further US troop deployments to Afghanistan to prop up a regime now regarded as systemically corrupt.

The acceptance was conveyed by Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, in a meeting with her Afghan counterpart hours before Mr Obama received a formal request from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 more troops.

Mrs Clinton told Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan Foreign Minister, that she and her Nato colleagues — including David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary — had reached a consensus that Mr Karzai would remain President even if investigations now under way cut his share of the first-round vote to below 50 per cent. The meeting took place last Friday but details emerged yesterday.

The Administration has also told Kabul that it will support what Mr Karzai calls a policy of “reconciliation”, which is intended to induce low and mid-ranking Taleban fighters into swapping sides or at least to lay down their arms. The same tactic, which boils down to paying fighters to leave the insurgency, is central to a new counter-insurgency strategy recommended by General McChrystal in a bleak assessment of Afghan security leaked last week to the journalist Bob Woodward.

The effort, modelled on the “Sons of Iraq” movement that proved critical to the success of the US-led surge in Iraq two years ago, is to be led by the British general Sir Graeme Lamb, according to Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Discussions on whether to grant General McChrystal’s troop request will dominate a meeting of the National Security Council today. It will be the first of a series that Mr Obama will chair as he chooses between the advice of his military to flood Afghanistan’s towns and cities with fresh troops, and that of his Vice-President and others to tear up his strategy lest it drag him into a Vietnam-style quagmire.

Publicly Mr Obama has insisted that General McChrystal, whom he handpicked in March, retains his full confidence. Reports of tension gained credibility, though, with the disclosure by the general on Sunday that they had spoken only once since he took up his post in Kabul. “I’ve talked to the President, since I’ve been here, once on a VTC ,” he told the CBS programme 60 Minutes.

British officials said yesterday that accepting Mr Karzai as winner of the election was “a recognition of the facts on the ground”. The British preference had been for Mr Karzai to form a national unity government taking in his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah — a scenario that the White House would also have welcomed — but Dr Abdullah appears to have ruled it out.

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