By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 20, 2009 - President Barack Obama today applauded Afghan President Hamid Karzai's consent for a second round of elections next month, calling the decision "an important step forward" for the country. "This is an important step forward in ensuring a credible process for the Afghan people which results in a government that reflects their will," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "While this election could have remained unresolved to the detriment of the country, President Karzai's constructive actions established an important precedent for Afghanistan's new democracy."
Karzai agreed earlier today to a run-off with Abdullah Abdullah, his top challenger, after controversy over the credibility of Karzai's votes in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 election. United Nations-backed investigators ruled that more than a third of the votes for Karzai were fraudulent.
The Afghan people and the international community now will have to wait just a little longer to find out if Karzai will serve another five years, Obama said.
"I congratulate the Afghan people on the patience and resilience they have shown throughout this long election process," he said. "It is extraordinary that they were able to overcome threats and violence to express their democratic right to choose their leader."
The legitimacy of Afghanistan's government and the views of its citizens will factor greatly on the final decisions for the U.S. strategy there, White House officials said over the weekend. Decisions on the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan will be based on the credibility of their Afghan partners, the officials added.
About 68,000 U.S. troops are deployed to Afghanistan, 12,000 more than the number on hand for the initial elections, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said today. Pentagon officials are confident forces the forces can provide security for the upcoming run-off, he added.
"The reality is, even though [Obama] has some further significant decisions in front of him, we already have 68,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and almost 40,000 troops from other countries," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters yesterday aboard a military aircraft traveling to Japan. "We're not just going to sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul."
Gates was clear that election security doesn't worry Pentagon officials as much as the country's government being delayed by the elections.
The outcome of the August election and the problems Afghanistan has had choosing its president "has complicated the situation for us," Gates said. The United States and its international partners will have to continue working with the Afghan government to build its legitimacy and address the issues of corruption, he added.
"The reality is, it's not going to be complicated one day and simple the next," he said. "We're going to have to work with this going forward, and I believe the president will have to make his decisions in the context of that evolutionary process."
White House and Pentagon officials and commanders in Afghanistan have reviewed numerous aspects of the potential Afghanistan strategy, Gates said, noting that not all talks have been about increasing military troops there. More civilian assistance from nongovernment organizations and the State Department to help in legitimizing Afghanistan's government and curb corruption also has been discussed, the secretary said.
"I think [the strategy review] has been a thorough process," he said. "I think we are now moving to the point where the president will begin to address some specific options and then make his decision. It's just a matter now of getting the time with the president when we can sort through these options and then tee them up for him to make a decision."