Salvaging something from the Afghan presidential election is going to require a big political push from the allies who help to prop up Afghanistan's government, even if that is only to see the electoral process through to conclusion.
The widely reported electoral fraud was not spontaneous, anarchic or inevitable. It was planned and systematic, with collusion from Afghan officialdom. The Independent Election Commission (IEC), despite being advised to hold back on announcements, has released provisional results giving the incumbent Hamid Karzai a slim majority. However, analysts who have been through the figures have concluded that this is due to fraudulently cast ballots.
An Election Complaints Commission is scrutinising results and considering complaints. In theory, the electoral process is far from over. The ECC has received enough complaints to strip Karzai of his majority and trigger a second round. The main challenger is sitting quiet for the moment but instability is feared should the IEC try to push through a tainted result. If everyone now plays by the rules and it is announced that the leading candidate received less than 50 per cent of the vote, there will have to be a second round.
There is contingency planning for a second poll. It is do-able in security terms and, politically, there is something to be said for it. In effect, the two candidates would be forced to construct cross-ethnic coalitions. Those who have argued that a second round would divisively pit northern Tajiks against southern Pashtuns have failed to comprehend the positive developments that have taken place in Afghan politics.
Karzai is well aware that the Pashtun vote alone is not enough to win an election, so he wooed Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik allies. His opponent and presidential contender, Abdullah Abdullah, also knows that to win, he has to style himself as a national leader, building his own cross-ethnic alliance and trying to appeal to both "reformist" and "warlord" voter blocs. This is politics. The candidate who does the best job of constructing a cross-ethnic alliance can claim legitimacy.
Some in the international community would prefer to focus on the counter-insurgency than elections. The trouble is that you cannot run a counter-insurgency without a legitimate government, and the government needs a new mandate. Alternative ways of mandating a government, whether by a loya jirga or international conference, might be logistically easier but are much more difficult to get agreement on.
Whatever happens, there have to be strong guarantees that the fraud of 20 August will not be repeated. Technically, running a reasonably clean election in Afghanistan is possible, but it will not happen without committed political effort on the part of the US, UN and the allies. A few concrete measures would go a fair way to ensuring this.
High on the allies' shopping list with Karzai has to be the appointment of a credible national figure as IEC chairman: someone acceptable to both candidates as well as to the leadership of parliament. In the meantime, the appointment of a caretaker administration, as per Bangladeshi practice, would be even better, but that would also be difficult to get agreement on. As a fall-back, a joint oversight commission, to check that provincial and district administrations, and security forces, observe impartiality, could help. Some action has to be taken against those responsible for the conspiracy in the first round, preferably targeting senior rather than junior conspirators. And in the run-up to a second round, the UN should be required to certify whether the IEC has implemented the required fraud-control measures.
Another set of critics has argued that no possible outcome of a second round could justify the effort involved in holding it. They maintain that an Abdullah victory would be a disaster because he is unacceptable to Pashtuns. They are wrong because, to assemble a winning coalition, Abdullah would have to reposition himself as a national leader and would have a better claim to rule in the south than any number of stuffed ballot boxes will give. These same critics argue that a Karzai victory might just as well be accepted from the first round if the ECC can be persuaded to turn a blind eye to some of the fraudulent ballots.
The more serious question is whether a Karzai elected on a second round would be any better at running Afghanistan than a Karzai elected on the first round. Legitimacy does matter. If Karzai claims victory on the basis of the stuffed boxes of the first round, it will be possible only because the West turns a blind eye to fraud. If he wins on the second round he will have been elected by the Afghan people in a fair contest. Some worry that thwarting Karzai's plans to win in one round would spoil the West's relationship with him. But turning a blind eye to the subversion of the election would so reduce Western credibility as to spoil many relationships, not just that with Karzai.
Those who believe a second round to be the best way forward must keep an eye on Karzai. He is, after all, currently president. And he may decide to create tactical "facts on the ground" by getting the IEC to announce final results regardless of ECC proceedings.
International actors have long behaved as if they are oblivious to Karzai's Machiavellian repertoire. The IEC's ditching of its own guidelines to include results that should have been quarantined smacks of exactly such tactical play. Friends of the president are already promoting the idea that the only resistance to the declaration of Karzai's re-election is coming from the foreigners.
The issue comes down to one of US leverage. All those in the Afghan government know that they are financially and militarily dependent on US support. If the US plays hard ball behind the scenes, it has sufficient leverage to persuade Karzai to accept the popular verdict.
There is no easy or attractive option in Afghanistan right now. A precipitate Western withdrawal would be costly both for Afghanistan and the international community. The least bad option is to see the electoral process through – which means to a second round, backed up with strong diplomatic intervention to prevent any suspicions of impropriety. An Afghan president elected with a degree of legitimacy would then be able to pursue a minimal process of state-building and reconciliation, creating conditions that would allow the withdrawal of Western troops.
Michael Semple, a fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, has more than 20 years' experience in Afghanistan