Last updated: October 21, 2009 12:57 am

Kabul forced on hard road to credibility

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Given the alleged bad blood between Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, and Hamid Karzai, the country’s embattled president, it was fortuitous that someone of John Kerry’s stature happened to be in Kabul over the last few days.

Mr Kerry’s senatorial field trip, which had been planned before this latest crisis unfolded, proved a useful accident for the White House, which was faced with the spectre that Mr Karzai would refuse to accept the logic of holding a second round run-off in the presidential election.

Working with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, who at the weekend stressed the need for a credible election process, Mr Kerry made it plain to Mr Karzai that the Obama administration would not announce any more troops until there was a “legitimate” new government in Kabul.

As it happens, Mr Obama might now be forced to delay his much-awaited troop announcement until after the election results have been declared.

“I want to commend senator Kerry, who was in the region travelling and ... was extraordinarily constructive and very helpful,” Barack Obama said on Tuesday. “He deserves great congratulations.”

But Mr Kerry’s success in persuading Mr Karzai to push ahead with another phase in what Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, described on Tuesday as a “rough and contentious election” should not mask the huge logistical difficulties of pulling it off.

“Somehow John Kerry managed to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said Bruce Riedel, who was Mr Obama’s chief Afghan adviser until March.

“But this looks likely to come at the expense of further delay in announcing the next US troop increase to Afghanistan.”

White House officials refused to be drawn on when precisely Mr Obama could make that announcement, in spite of growing Republican and international criticism that he has been prevaricating for too long.

Neither is it clear how long it will take for there to be a credible tally from the November 7 election – assuming that the poll would be largely free of fraud.

Further delay in making the troop announcement, which could involve anything from 10,000 to 60,000 extra forces under the options provided last month by General Stanley McChrystal, the senior US commander on the ground, means further delay in deployment.

And this will almost certainly fuel more domestic sniping over Mr Obama’s allegedly Hamlet-like qualities of indecision.

“In reality there is nothing Obama can do on the troops until there is a legitimate government in Afghanistan,” said an adviser to the White House, who wished to remain anonymous.

“If he announced troops before the results of the second round, that would cause huge disquiet among Democratic supporters on Capitol Hill.”

However, this further expected delay in the troop deployment will also make it even tougher for Gen McChrystal to deliver results from his Afghanistan counter-insurgency strategy before next year’s US mid-term congressional elections.

The domestic US timetable is weighing almost as heavily on Mr Obama as the Afghan one, given the sharply growing unpopularity of the war among American voters.

For the time being, though, all the focus will be on whether a credible second round election can be pulled off, given the steep odds against it.

“The challenges of holding this election in an incredibly difficult security environment cannot be overstated,” Mr Kerry said on Tuesday, with Mr Karzai standing beside him.

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