After a fair bit of media buildup, the presidential election in Afghanistan passed fairly quietly last week. Violence was lower than expected, but so was turnout, and the mood among Afghan citizens, who have seen the tenure of incumbent Hamid Karzai drift disappointingly toward corruption and cronyism, seemed subdued. Now the votes have been cast, allegations of wide-ranging fraud have been hurled, and the counting has begun, but a result won’t be declared anytime soon. The nation’s Independent Election Commission won’t announce preliminary results until at least Sept. 3—though it plans to hold daily press conferences until that time. Meanwhile,
bombs keep going off
.

During this period of enforced limbo, the sizable contingent of Western reporters in the country will probably spend much of its time waiting to see whether sectarian conflict breaks out. So it seems like a good time to take stock of what we know about the current state of play, what it might mean for the U.S., and what the media should focus on in the weeks to com.

Here’s the current situation: though there are about 40 candidates in the field, the main contest is between Karzai, who has led the country since a U.S. invasion forced out the Taliban, and Abdullah Abdullah, a sartorially gifted ophthalmologist (about whom more later). Despite his widespread unpopularity, Karzai was considered the heavy favorite for much of the campaign. But polling had showed his lead narrowing, and by election day many observers doubted either candidate would surpass the 50.1% percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Shortly after the voting ended, representatives from both camps claimed the advantage; just as quickly, accusations of fraud started to emerge. The most widely-publicized allegations in the Western press involve ballot-stuffing in the Pashtun south, Karzai’s base, where Taliban intimidation kept turnout at especially low levels. The question seems to be not whether cheating occurred, but whether it was widespread enough to affect the outcome: “Our preliminary conclusion is that it is conceivable that this was a fair election,” an international observer told the Washington Times, putting a hopeful spin on the situation. Reports in Tuesday morning’s papers that Karzai supporters were talking of a landslide victory raised fears about coordinated fraud and retaliatory violence, but when the first 10 percent of the votes were publicly announced, they showed a near-tie between Karzai and Abdullah.

Those credible numbers likely came as a source of relief to the Obama administration, which finds itself in a difficult situation. The U.S. effort in Afghanistan seems to have become a full-fledged nation-building operation, with an increasing contingent of American troops tasked with training the Afghan military and providing security to help create political stability. Of course, if the government is seen to be illegitimate because of suspicions that it was produced by fraud, political stability will be impossible to achieve, no matter how many brigades we send. At the same time, while President Obama and his aides generally take a dim view of Karzai, the incumbent is generally linked with the U.S. in the court of Afghan public opinion—so if he makes a power grab, America may be guilty by association.

Western press coverage has generally been strong on recognizing this dilemma—but observers don’t always agree about what outcome would be most in America’s interests. Last week in The New York Times, Helene Cooper and Carlotta Gall wrote that American officials were worried about the prospect of a run-off:

But they were clearly concerned on Friday that a second round of voting could extend the paralysis of a government that already barely functions and deepen ethnic tensions, in the worst case, to the point of a north-south civil war.

In addition, a runoff would leave up in the air many of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy initiatives — like fighting corruption and improving distribution of aid — for at least another two months, American officials said.

But in a lively Q&A with Mother Jones, the scholar Thomas Barfield said a narrow win for either candidate would be far worse, because it would highlight concerns about legitimacy:

If there’s no runoff and it’s really, really close, then fraud plays a really big role. On the other hand, if it goes to a second round, it really doesn’t matter whether there was fraud in the first round or not… From the US point of view, you wouldn’t want either Abdullah or Karzai to come into office on this vote with 51 percent.

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.