KABUL - Afghan politicians on Tuesday expressed frustration over delays to the outcome of the August presidential election, held up by elaborate efforts to wipe clean the widespread fraud that marred the vote.
Nearly two months after polling day, Afghanistan's election watchdog is still sifting through mountains of dubious ballots to determine if President Hamid Karzai is the outright winner or must face a second vote against his runner-up.
The protracted process has kindled tension between Karzai and his Western backers, left Afghanistan in political limbo and helped delay a decision by President Barack Obama on sending the extra troops his battlefield commander has said he needs.
"The people of Afghanistan have the right to know who will be the next president and whether we will we go to a second round or not," Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told Reuters.
"To leave the people in this vacuum, this is not in our interest. In this regard we have our differences (with our international partners)," added Spanta.
Karzai has pressed to have his 54.6 percent first round victory confirmed quickly, but the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) is resisting, giving hope to lead challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Western ambassadors have lined up to back the ECC, irritating Karzai, who has criticized unnamed "outside circles" for interfering in the Afghan election.
In an interview with ABC's "Good Morning America," Karzai cast doubt on the ECC, saying "it needed to prove it is impartial and fair."
"We must not turn an election of the Afghan people -- a victory of the Afghan people -- into a nightmare for the Afghan people," he said.
A Karzai-backer on the five-member ECC board quit on Monday, citing foreign interference in the count. A diplomatic source said it was a tactical move to avoid being associated with a ruling that would require a second round.
The ECC is examining around a quarter of the 5.66 million votes cast, before giving its verdict to the Afghan-run election commission and the final result is now not expected before Saturday at the earliest.
"Afghans are frustrated and the international community is frustrated with this delay in the announcement. It is having far reaching impact on economic and commercial activities in the country," Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters.
Diplomats said the ECC was having to balance the thoroughness of its review with getting out a result quickly to enable any second round to take place before winter sets in. Many Afghans would be cut off by snow, pushing the vote into next spring.
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"If the ECC takes an entirely purist approach that had the impact of disenfranchising large communities, that would also delegitimize the election," said British Ambassador Mark Sedwill.
The reputational blight to Karzai from the ballot stuffing by his supporters, and uncertainty over how he will react to the ECC's ruling, has given strength to voices in Washington calling him unreliable and for a U.S. force pullback in Afghanistan.
U.S. commander Stanley McChrystal has asked for 40,000 troops to add to the 68,000 who will be deployed by the year's-end, to pursue a counter-insurgency strategy of winning population centres from the Taliban and establishing government control.
Karzai, who has not always seen eye-to-eye with Washington, told the ABC network he wanted the extra troops. "What I am concerned about is a successful implementation of our struggle against extremism and terrorism," he said.
Obama will likely take several more weeks to review strategy in a war that has already lasted more than eight years, whose outcome is expected to define his presidency and which is at its deadliest since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
"I hope the decision can be made soon. The (extra) resources will be required," said Wardak.
Karzai's standing would be diminished if there were a second round, but Afghanistan's ethnic arithmetic still makes him clear favorite to win. He has said little publicly about the shape of his future government, but others have begun speculating.
Abdullah on Monday opened the door to talks on a broad-based government, having previously refused outright to consider cooperating with Karzai, who he worked under from 2001 to 2006.
Western governments fear the government will be shaped less by competence than by the pre-election deals they think were struck with warlords and ethnic chief to deliver support in return for a share of power.
"I think this will be a government with the participation of the Afghan political elites from different ethnic and sectarian groups," said Spanta.
But international pressure for an inclusive government would not necessarily deliver the effective, non-corrupt partner the West was looking for.
"The commitment of President Karzai is to build an effective and credible government and I hope that our allies are beginning to recognize this reality," said Spanta. "Including everybody is not an effective government."
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jeremy Laurence