BBC Reports on a Row in Afghanistan

So it seems the Obama administration has some concerns about the election in Afghanistan. From the BBC*:

The US special envoy to Afghanistan has held an “explosive” meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the country’s election, the BBC has learnt.

Richard Holbrooke raised concerns about ballot-stuffing and fraud, by a number of candidates’ teams, sources say.

The US envoy also said a second-round run-off could make the election process more credible, the sources said.

Afghan and American spokespeople denied the accuracy of that account. But if it’s true, it sounds like Holbrooke is embracing the logic Thomas Barfield recently outlined to Mother Jones:

The US will be caught in a real dilemma if Karzai claims 51 percent… 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… It would be better to have a runoff so people can focus on a one-on-one, not forty candidates running against Karzai.

Not everyone agrees, though. According to another BBC story, a top British diplomat sees Holbrooke’s intervention as “unhelpful.” Lord Ashdown told the BBC:

“If it is the case that the Americans by some form or another have declared these elections illegitimate as it were, have undermined the legitimacy of the electoral process, then our capacity to be able to win back the support of the Pashtun tribes from the Taliban is lessened.

“And the people this is likely to help most are the Taliban themselves.”

This is fascinating and difficult stuff, and if there is a U.S.-U.K. split on how to proceed, that is important in its own right. (British officials seem to have been the BBC’s sources for its original story, seeing as the Holbrooke-Karzai meeting was described as “a dramatic bust-up”; the story is also being carried by other British news outlets.) As Lord Ashdown’s comments indicate, the question of whether the election can produce a stable and legitimate Afghan government is central to the question of whether the Taliban can be marginalized. (Whether the U.S. should be escalating its commitment even if that is possible is another question entirely.) More reporting on this, please.

*Discovered this story through this morning’s Slatest column, Slate’s replacement for Today’s Papers. I’m not entirely sold on the new approach, which feels less like an adaptation to Web 2.0 than a knock-off of The Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet. But the fact that its view expands beyond five U.S. newspapers is definitely a benefit.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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