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Runoff a test for Afghanistan: Is Karzai a reliable partner?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to the Nov. 7 election runoff under heavy pressure. With Obama considering sending more troops to Afghanistan, the US will be watching to see if the corrupt government is trustworthy.

Afghan men watch the live coverage of the Tuesday press conference of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US Senator John Kerry, at a coffee shop in Kabul. Afghanistan's election commission Tuesday ordered a Nov. 7 runoff in the disputed presidential poll after a fraud investigation dropped incumbent Hamid Karzai's votes below 50 percent of the total. Karzai accepted the finding and agreed to a second round vote.

Altaf Qadri/AP

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai's acceptance of a Nov. 7 runoff presidential election – under intense international pressure – stresses the mounting desire in the US and Europe to have a more reliable partner in Afghanistan.

The US is making it clear that the election must result in a less corrupt, more efficient, and more representative government. The first round of the election was marked by widespread fraud widely connected to Mr. Karzai's government.

Hanging in the balance is President Obama's decision on additional troops and resources for Afghanistan. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said Sunday on CNN that it would be "irresponsible" to commit more troops before the political situation is resolved.

President Obama on Tuesday praised the Afghan president for "constructive actions" that set "an important precedent for Afghanistan's new democracy." But he also said that "above all" the US is interested in the "strength and independence" of the country's institutions – at this moment its electoral board and watchdog in particular.

The White House said Tuesday Mr. Obama had not decided whether to wait until after the Nov. 7 election to announce his decision on troop levels. But the president has scheduled additional strategy review sessions this week and next, which would take him to within a week or so of the runoff.

In the runoff, Karzai will face rival Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the Aug. 20 voting. Initially, Karzai claimed outright victory, but a review of balloting by national and international experts concluded that large-scale fraud had inflated Karzai's totals. A more legitimate count left him with less than 50 percent of the vote, the review found.

The effectiveness and legitimacy of the Karzai government has become an important issue this year as Obama considers stepping up US efforts across the board in Afghanistan – from military operations to agricultural aid. But such efforts would depend to some degree on having a competent Afghan government as a partner. Government corruption and inefficiency, however, have lead to rampant lawlessness in cities and the virtual nonexistence of government authority in rural areas.

Afghanistan ranks 176 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's corruption index. This corruption, and the related inability to dispense basic public services, is considered a major factor in the Taliban's resurgence across the country. The Taliban is active in some 160 of the country's 368 districts – up from 30 in 2003, according to Pentagon data.

In those circumstances, administration officials are hinting that Obama's decision will depend in part on signs from the Afghan government – and Karzai in particular – that corruption will be addressed. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held long phone conversations with both Karzai and Mr. Abdullah Monday, and Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a key Obama adviser on Afghanistan, was at Karzai's side in Kabul when Karzai announced he would accept a runoff.

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This suggests the elections will be crucial to determining future US policy in Afghanistan. Mr. Emanuel said Sunday that the president must conduct "a thorough analysis of whether, in fact, there's an Afghan partner ready to ... become a true partner in governing."

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