President Obama praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai's willingness to face a runoff in his disputed election, amid mixed signals from the White House over whether the results could delay a decision on troop levels.
“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,” Obama said, during an Oval Office visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Karzai's decision followed intense pressure by the administration to accept a do-over on the Aug. 20 election. Obama, meanwhile, faces a pressing issue of his own to decide a new war strategy for Afghanistan.
The two spoke on Tuesday, and Obama later was measured in his praise for the Afghan president.
“President Karzai, as well as the other candidates, I think, have shown that they had the interests of the Afghan people at heart, that this is a reflection of a commitment to rule of law and an insistence that the Afghan people's will should be done,” Obama said. “And so I expressed the American people's appreciation for this step.”
More than a million ballots in the recent Afghan presidential elections are believed fraudulent. Karzai won the first round, but will face fellow top finisher Abdullah Abdullah in a runoff Nov. 7.
Traveling to Japan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said a decision on troop levels may not await the installation of a credible Afghan government.
“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 said. “We have operations under way and we will continue to conduct those operations.”
Obama is believed to be close to a final decision on a request from Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to significantly increase troop levels in Afghanistan and expand a new, counterinsurgency strategy.
An announcement was generally expected before Obama departs on a trip to Asia in early November. But the fraudulent Afghan elections, and the administration's growing discomfort with Karzai, presented a new set of challenges to the White House.
Over the weekend, administration officials signaled that Obama may be unwilling to proceed with a new war strategy without a credible and functioning government in Kabul. Some Republicans assailed the remarks as a stall tactic.
But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said waiting on the results of another round of voting was not a certainty, in any case.
“None of this is going to work without credible partners,” Gibbs said. At the same time, “this is a decision that will be made in the coming weeks. So, obviously, work continues at many levels to get this done.”
Gibbs added of the troubled Afghan government, “This isn't in some ways a new problem.”
For his part, Gates stressed the “evolutionary” nature of the changes taking place in Afghanistan, saying it's unrealistic to expect a new round of elections to suddenly restore order in the government.
“It's not going to be complicated one day and simple the next,” Gates said. “I think 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.”