KABUL – Afghan officials would face a daunting task in organizing a runoff presidential election before the arrival of winter — including hiring unbiased staff and securing polling stations in areas under threat of Taliban attack.
The problems are unlikely to end there. Even if the Afghans were to pull it off, there's no guarantee that another ballot — which seems increasingly probable — would produce a reliable partner for the U.S. and its allies in confronting the Taliban-led insurgency.
Election officials are expected to rule within days on fraud allegations over the Aug. 20 election. The vote was marred by charges of ballot-stuffing and voter coercion, mostly to the benefit of the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai.
Preliminary results show Karzai won with about 54 percent. But if the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission discards enough of the votes for Karzai, it could drop the president's total below 50 percent. That would force a runoff with the top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.
The electoral tumult already has thrown the country into a political crisis and cast doubt on a key pillar of the NATO strategy in Afghanistan — partnering with a legitimate Afghan government capable of winning broad public support against the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies.
President Barack Obama is trying to decide whether to send in tens of thousands more U.S. troops and whether it is worth backing a government that has lost much of its legitimacy through corruption and alleged electoral fraud.
If the commission announces that Karzai does not have enough votes for a first-round win, Afghan law requires a runoff within two weeks. Election officials say it will take that long to prepare for a new vote.
That would push the balloting into early November — just ahead of the advent of winter, which usually begins in most of the country in the second half of the month.
In the far northern province of Badakhshan, snow already has fallen. Deputy Gov. Shams-ul Rahman said a snowstorm about two weeks ago closed many remote roads.
Once the first snows fall across the rest of the country, it will be difficult to transport ballots to and from Kabul over Afghanistan's primitive road system, especially through mountain passes that rise as high as 10,000 feet. Many rural Afghans would probably stay at home rather than travel to polling stations in the fierce cold.
"It's hard in cold weather to come by donkey or foot," said Mohammad Nader Fahimi, the deputy governor of central Bamiyan province.
With a possible runoff looming, election officials have gathered materials including ballots, indelible ink and counting sheets in the capital so they can be distributed to the provinces on short notice.
Distributing ballots is only one of the problems facing Afghan authorities.
"Challenges remain, including hiring and training polling center staff and making sure people complicit in first-round vote fraud are not rehired," said Timothy Michael Carney, a retired U.S. ambassador who runs the U.S. election support team. "And of course the important aspect of ensuring security for a possible second round."
The Independent Election Commission, the Afghan body that runs elections, must also complete the list of polling stations. The ousted deputy chief of the U.N. mission, Peter Galbraith, complained that many polling stations for the August balloting were established in areas too dangerous for voters — simply so ballots there could be faked.
In order to minimize fraud in the second round, U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said the list of polling stations would be based on those that actually opened in August and where international and Afghan forces can provide security.
About 200 district field coordinators would be replaced for a runoff — some because of "complaints made against them by candidates or observers," Siddique said Wednesday.
Finding replacements won't be easy. The government had to scramble this summer to recruit enough poll workers — particularly women — for the August vote. It's unclear if they would be able to fill the posts with better-qualified people.
"No one is denying the challenges that we face. But whether or not we have a second round will not be dictated by how hard it is to conduct a second round. It will decided by the mathematics of the count," Siddique said.
But the impartiality of the U.N.-backed fraud panel is now under suspicion after one of two Afghan members resigned, claiming foreigners were making all the decisions. Karzai refused to accept the resignation, but the move played into Afghan suspicions that the U.S. and its partners were manipulating the process.
Many Afghans, meanwhile, question whether a second round would be worth the effort.
Many of Karzai's fellow ethnic Pashtuns believe the delay in proclaiming a winner is simply a ploy by the Americans to deny another term to the incumbent. Abdullah, a mixed Pashtun-Tajik, is widely seen as the northern candidate while Karzai's family comes from the heavily Pashtun south.
Businessmen complain that their partners in Pakistan and elsewhere won't finalize contracts because of uncertainty over who will be running the country.
"Security is not good and it is just getting worse," said Ajmal Karimi, a 21-year-old economics student at Kabul University.
He said he'd rather see money spent on improving the country than on elections.
"People are gathering and saying, 'We've voted once and we are not going again,"' said Daoud Ali Najafi, the chief electoral officer.
In southern Kandahar province, taxi driver Mohammad Nazir said the real decision-makers in the election are the Americans — a widely held view among Afghans.
"Whoever the Americans want to be president, he will be president," Nazir said. He believes the U.S. is trying to get rid of Karzai because he has been critical of the number of civilians killed in military operations.
"They are just giving a show of this 'free and fair election' to the world community," he said.