AFGHANISTAN

Karzai and rival prepared to resolve dispute, says Kouchner

On a visit to Kabul on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (left) joined a chorus of foreign leaders and top officials pressuring Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) to resolve the dispute over August's presidential vote.

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French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, on a state visit to Afghanistan, announced Sunday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his chief rival for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah, have agreed to cooperate to end their political standoff.

"They have both cited the necessity to work together," Kouchner said, following a meeting with the two adversaries. "Honestly, it's the least they can do."

Senior foreign officials ratcheted up the pressure on Karzai on Saturday to resolve the issues surrounding August’s disputed presidential election that threaten to undermine efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and fend off a Taliban insurgency.

Allegations of fraud in the August 20 presidential election have left Afghanistan in a state of political uncertainty.

“This is very complicated,”  Kouchner told reporters on Saturday.

“We want to understand why it is not possible to get a consensus,” Kouchner said. “But you need to work together.”

Karzai’s office said he also held telephone conversations with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

‘Entirely irresponsible’

As President Barack Obama weighs whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said Saturday that Washington should not implement a new Afghan strategy that involves more troops without a clear political partner in Kabul.

“Look, it would be entirely irresponsible for the president of the United States to commit more troops to this country, when we don't even have an election finished and know who the president is and what kind of government we’re working in,” Kerry said in an interview with CNN's State of the Union from Kabul.

Kerry was among several high-level visitors to Afghanistan before the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission's expected announcement this weekend on whether there will need to be a runoff between Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

The election is a vital element in Western plans to stabilise Afghanistan and deny sanctuary there to militants believed to have used it as a base for actions across the globe, including the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

More than 100,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, but growing casualties and doubts about the Karzai government are undermining support for the effort in the United States, Britain and other countries.

Run-off in the offing?

Karzai won 54.6 percent of the August 20 vote, according to preliminary figures. The Electoral Complaints Commission has said it found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud”. If enough votes are disqualified on those grounds, a second round of voting would need to be held within two weeks, according to the Afghan constitution.

But if the commission finds the indications of fraud insufficient to overturn the result, Karzai can be declared the winner and would be free to appoint his new government.

More than 250,000 votes would have to be thrown out from Karzai's initial win for it to fall below the 50 percent that would require a run-off vote.

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