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Under Pressure, Karzai Endorses Afghan Election Runoff

October 20, 2009 at 12:17 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Afghan President Hamid Karzai bowed to pressure today and agreed to a runoff election on November 7. The announcement came as the Obama administration debates the future of U.S. involvement.

Gwen Ifill has our lead story report.

GWEN IFILL: Karzai’s announcement came two months after he was declared winner of an August election that ended amid widespread charges of fraud. He spoke in his native Pashto shortly after the country’s independent election commission ordered the runoff.

But international pressure that had been brought to bear was evident. He was flanked by U.S. Senator John Kerry and the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide.

HAMID KARZAI, president, Afghanistan: We consider the decision made by the independent election commission as legal and right. It agrees with Afghanistan’s constitution, and it insists on the national interests of Afghanistan, and strengthens our country’s democracy. And, fortunately, it’s a main step toward development.

GWEN IFILL: The news conference, aired live on state TV, came a day after a U.N.-backed audit threw out nearly a million votes cast for Karzai. That dropped him below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Today, the president made no mention of vote fraud.

HAMID KARZAI: I call upon our nation to change this into an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and determination to move this country forward and participate in the new round of elections.

The people of Afghanistan will go to ballot boxes to choose between the two candidates who got more votes in the last election. Fortunately, I’m one of those candidates, and the other one is Dr. Abdullah. I wish him happiness and prosperity.

Kerry praises Karzai

GWEN IFILL: Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main challenger, said he had expected a runoff. He said the people of Afghanistan had as well.

Until today, Karzai had resisted calls for a new vote, but Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Karzai at least four times in recent days. He praised the president for demonstrating genuine leadership.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: There has been no clear resolution to the election, leaving many Afghans with legitimate concerns and fears about the future. President Karzai himself had serious questions about the process. But, today, he showed statesmanship by deciding to move forward and to strengthen the country by embracing the constitution and the rule of law.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, President Obama said he telephoned Karzai with congratulations shortly before an Oval Office meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a reflection of a commitment to rule of law and a -- an insistence that the Afghan people's will should be done.

This has been a difficult election. You have violent forces opposed to democracy in Afghanistan. And, yet, despite these very difficult conditions, we have seen the candidates expressing a willingness to abide by constitutional law. And there is a path forward in order to complete this election process.

Problems ahead

GWEN IFILL: It remains unclear how the day's developments will affect Mr. Obama's decision on sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

But, before arriving in Tokyo, Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised concerns about further delay, telling reporters, "We're not just going to sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election."

ROBERT GATES, secretary of defense, U.S.: I have indicated on a number of occasions after the election in August that the outcome of the election and the -- and the problems with the election have complicated the situation for us. But the reality is, it's not going get simple -- it's not going to be complicated one day and simple the next.

GWEN IFILL: Still, a White House spokesman said again today it could be weeks before any decision is made on whether to send more troops. Afghans now face the task of mounting a runoff on short notice, in the face of security problems and approaching winter.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, the challenges are huge.

BAN KI-MOON: Having learned the lessons from the first elections, that there was widespread fraud, irregularities and the fraudulence, we will try our best in cross-coordination with Afghan leadership and Afghanistan institutions and other international major partners to make this election as fair and free of fraudulence.

GWEN IFILL: But, because Karzai still has the support of his Pashtun majority, the runoff in 18 days could well yield the same outcome: a Karzai victory, this time winner-take-all.