KABUL – Afghanistan edged closer to a long-awaited resolution to August's presidential vote Monday as election workers started recounting suspect ballots and an official said a ruling on whether President Hamid Karzai won or will face a runoff is expected next week.
The Aug. 20 election was hampered by violence and allegations of vote-rigging that have since plunged the country into an electoral crisis while Taliban militants are expanding from their southern strongholds into the north and west.
Preliminary results released last month showed Karzai won the voting with 54.6 percent, enough to avoid a runoff with second-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah, his former foreign minister. But the recount and audit ordered by a U.N.-backed fraud panel could cut Karzai's votes below the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright.
About 13 percent of the country's approximately 26,300 polling stations are considered questionable by the fraud panel because they had more than 100 percent turnout or more than 95 percent of votes for one candidate.
A sampling of 358 ballot boxes is being examined as a way to speed the investigative process. Counting all 3,498 suspect boxes could take months, potentially delaying a verdict on the vote until spring, which some fear would create a power vacuum at a critical time when attacks by a resurgent Taliban are growing. Winter snows that typically start in November make much of the country impassable for months.
Election workers started opening and investigating boxes Monday, though they still have to wait for 84 of the boxes to arrive in the capital, according to the deputy director of the election commission, Zekria Barakzai.
If fraud is found in any of the 358 boxes, those votes will be thrown out, according to the election commission. Those results will then be used to decide what percentage of votes to void for each candidate in the 3,498 suspect polling stations.
Barakzai said the count should take about three days to complete and that the commission would be able to announce final results "by the end of next week."
If a runoff is required, Barakzai said it must be held within two to three weeks of the announcement of the results.
The fraud panel is also conducting separate investigations into specific allegations of fraud and has already voided ballots from dozens of polling stations in those examinations.
The former No. 2 official at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, said Monday the United Nations "did not exercise its responsibility" in combating fraud.
Galbraith told ABC television that problems with the vote were preventable and accused the U.N. of not doing enough. Galbraith was fired from his post after an argument with his boss over how to handle fraud investigations.
Bolstering Afghanistan's weak and corruption-ridden government is considered key to President Barack Obama's strategy for curbing the Taliban insurgency so that U.S. and other international troops can go home.
However, the fraud allegations threaten to undermine those plans at a time when the Taliban is proving to be a skillful and determined adversary.
In a sign of the growing insurgent threat, hundreds of militants launched fierce attacks Saturday against two isolated outposts in Nuristan province, killing eight American soldiers in the biggest loss of U.S. life in a single battle since 2001. About 20 Afghan security troopers were captured in the attacks about 20 miles from the border with Pakistan.
Afghan officials said U.S. and Afghan forces had sealed off an area Monday where the assailants were believed to hiding.
The Obama administration is also divided over a request by the top military commander here, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to send up to 40,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan. Obama is considering a range of ideas for changing course in Afghanistan, including scaling back, staying put or sending more troops to fight the insurgency.
U.S. officials also are waiting for the results of the Afghan election.
As the debate rages in Washington, the NATO command reported that two more international soldiers, including one American, were killed in recent fighting. A statement from the alliance said a U.S. soldier died of wounds suffered in a bombing Sunday in the south.
It said a second service member died of wounds in a roadside bombing Monday, also in the south, but the victim's nationality was not released.
At least 16 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan so far this month — matching the American death toll for all of October 2008.