As befits the difficulty of the situation, both these arguments sound persuasive when describing what might go wrong, and it seems entirely plausible that they’re both, in a sense, correct. Going forward, sorting out just how the post-election ambiguity complicates the U.S. mission will be one of the media’s top tasks—one that is especially vital as readers, and policymakers, confront calls for still more troops.

The other priority will be painting a portrait of one of the characters at the center of the story is, and what his victory would mean for Afghanistan and America. Karzai is by now a known commodity (and if you’re looking for more on him, check out the mammoth NYT Magazine profile from earlier this month). But the Western press has yet to fully explain who Abdullah is and what he stands for—perhaps because it was preoccupied with Ashraf Ghani, a Western-oriented technocrat who was almost a non-entity to Afghan voters. Like Karzai, Abdullah is the son of a Pashtun father, but he is known for his role helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban in the wake of the U.S. invasion, and he draws his support from the country’s ethnically diverse northern provinces. He is also, like many prominent Afghans, a former member of Karzai’s cabinet.

A New York Times profile of Abdullah, published nearly a month ago, provides one of the fullest looks we have of him and his platform: decentralization of power, reconciliation with the Taliban, curbs on corruption, support for women’s rights. Thomas Barfield, in his conversation with Mother Jones, also sketches a picture of the candidate. Still, it’s not clear why the opposition to Karzai coalesced around him. Nor is it clear what will happen if Abdullah is ultimately declared the winner, and the assorted drug lords and warlords whose support Karzai has cultivated decide that they can’t live with that result. In this part of the world, it’s just another thing to worry about—and another story for the press to track down.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.