Last updated: October 20, 2009 10:26 pm

Karzai agrees to Afghan poll run-off

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, bowed to intense White House and international pressure on Tuesday and agreed to a run-off presidential election after fraud investigators annulled almost a third of his votes.

Led by John Kerry, the former US presidential candidate, who met Mr Karzai five times in the last three days, the international community cajoled Mr Karzai to accept that only a run-off could restore credibility to the process. The new poll will take place on November 7.

The August 20 first round election had been marred by evidence of massive fraud, most of it conducted by the president’s supporters. Mr Karzai had been adamant he had won outright victory against Abdullah Abdullah, his main rival. But after strong arm-twisting by Mr Kerry and others, Mr Karzai capitulated at a news conference.

President Barack Obama, who had made it plain he would not announce any further US troop deployments to Afghanistan without a credible government in Kabul, on Tuesday “congratulated” Mr Karzai on his commitment to the “rule of law”.

He hinted at the huge challenges of holding a second round at such short notice. “You have violent forces opposed to democracy in Afghanistan,” Mr Obama said, shortly after holding a meeting with Nouri Al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, on the January polls scheduled there. “This has been a very difficult time in Afghanistan.”

Mr Karzai was flanked at Tuesday’s announcement by Mr Kerry, the US and UK ambassadors, and the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan.

“A time of enormous uncertainty has been transformed into a time of great opportunity,” said Mr Kerry. “The international community is committed to carry out this election ... and to make the run-off a success.”

The order for a fresh vote raises the risk that the Taliban will stage a repeat of the bomb and rocket attacks that led to an extremely low turn-out in many southern areas. The resulting insecurity aided large-scale fraud.

Attempts to mediate between the two sides have fuelled widespread speculation among diplomats and Afghan analysts that Mr Abdullah and Mr Karzai will come to some form of power-sharing arrangement to overcome the divisive legacy of the polls.

Although western powers have come out firmly in favour of the run-off, one international official said it was still possible a deal may be struck first.

Washington and Europe had supported a partial recount staged by a UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission to try to resolve a two-month political crisis that had raised fears of unrest and prompted the White House to defer a decision on whether to send tens of thousands more troops to fight a resurgent Taliban.

International investigators threw out hundreds of thousands of votes for Mr Karzai on Monday, taking him just below the 50 per cent he needed to claim outright victory.

Foreign envoys have been seeking to encourage dialogue between Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah, which has raised fears the country could become further polarised along a north-south ethnic faultline.

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Divided Nato a ‘rotting corpse’

The splits inside Nato over the Afghan war have turned it into a “rotting corpse” that could be impossible to revive, says the former head of Canada’s armed forces, Reuters reports from Ottawa.

General Rick Hillier also said the 28-member alliance was “dominated by jealousies and small, vicious political battles” and bemoaned its “lack of cohesion” at the start of the Afghan mission.

He made the angry comments in a new book called A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War, due to be published next week.

So far, 131 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan. The combat mission is due to end in 2011 and Ottawa says it has no plans to extend it.

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