Afghanistan's former Foreign Minister and current presidential aspirant Dr. Abdullah Abdullah refers to President Hamid Karzai as "that gentleman" with a kind of icy irony. Abdullah dismisses Karzai's suggestion that the two men at loggerheads over the result of the Aug. 20 presidential poll, which Karzai says he won, and Abdullah says was rigged should form a government of national unity. "I ran for a change in Afghanistan," Abdullah says. "Not for deal-making." And the U.N., which Abdullah blames for the poor organization of the polls and a pro-Karzai bias, doesn't escape his ire. "Right from the registration of voters up to the counting of ballots, the whole process was deeply flawed," he says. "I can swallow the bitter pill of my own defeat, but not the injustice, nor the fact that Afghanistan will be ruled illegitimately for the next five years." This, he says, plays straight into the Taliban's hands. "The Taliban can say that 'It's only us who can bring justice to this country, not Karzai, not the international community.' "
In a wide-ranging interview with TIME, Abdullah rejected all talk of compromise over the disputed poll. Unofficial results give Karzai 54.6% of the vote and Abdullah just 27.8%. But European observers say that at least 1.5 million ballots more than one-third of the total may have been fraudulent. If, as opponents and foreign observers allege, most of the tainted ballots turn out to be for Karzai, that could drop the President below the 50% mark. "The international community has to ask itself: Will it tolerate this massive fraud?" Abdullah asks.
That's a question that still has to be answered. A month on, the final count has been paralyzed while U.N. and Afghan officials argue over what to do next. Some want to declare Karzai the winner quickly, arguing that even with the fraudulent ballots subtracted, the incumbent may still have gathered more than 50% of the vote. This, they say, would spare Afghanistan and the international community another costly and potentially violent vote in the midst of winter blizzards. Hence all that talk of a backroom deal between Karzai and Abdullah, in which Karzai would remain President but Abdullah would be named as Prime Minister or some such role.
But other parties with a stake in the result, including the U.S., would prefer a runoff. Washington has grown disenchanted with Karzai's dithering, corruption and tribal nepotism over the past few years and believes that a free election is required to give the country a chance at rebuilding. Even if Karzai wins a second round, they say, if it's seen as free and fair at least his position will have some legitimacy.
Divisions within the diplomatic community burst to the surface last week when the top U.N. official, Norwegian Kai Eide, ordered his American deputy Peter Galbraith home. According to Western diplomats, Galbraith wanted a probe into all fraud allegations while Eide urges an easing of the definition of fraud to avert a second-round vote.
There is no confusion what Abdullah thinks should be done. A first-round Karzai victory, he warns, will mean a government with the same flaws as the old one. "The people who committed the fraud will want posts in the next Karzai government, and we'll have more of the same greed," Abdullah says. The presidential challenger advocates an interim caretaker government until a second round of voting takes place. "It's only by showing the credibility of the election process that we have any chance." Otherwise, "this country will slip out of our hands to the Taliban."
The struggle over the poll also highlights the country's age-old ethnic divide. In the August poll, Abdullah won a clear majority of the Tajik vote in the north; Karzai the Pashtun vote in the south. Abdullah's ties to the late warrior-poet, Ahmed Shah Masood, killed by al-Qaeda a few days before 9/11, help Abdullah's support in the north because Tajiks revere Masood as an exemplary leader who single-handedly held off the Soviets and the Taliban. On the other hand, Abdullah's Masood connection is a turnoff to many Pashtun tribesmen, who viewed Masood as just another troublesome warlord. It doesn't matter that Abdullah's father was a Pashtun.
A large painting hangs in Abdullah's drawing room. It is a variation on the traditional Persian theme of a Sufi master sitting on a rock, jesting with his loving disciples. In this canvas, though, the turbaned Sufi teacher is replaced by Masood and his disciples are several scruffy-looking guerrillas plus Abdullah, who stands out, neatly combed, with the hint of a halo. As a military man, Masood understood that in Afghanistan, political disputes are often settled by force. This is a lesson passed on to his disciple Abdullah and one, he says, that Karzai should learn, too. "Karzai blames the international community for Afghanistan's troubles," Abdullah says scornfully. "But when he first came to the palace, he needed foreign bodyguards because he couldn't find 30 Afghans that he trusted." Abdullah also says Karzai's popularity has sunk so low after the allegations of massive fraud that if international forces were to leave Afghanistan tomorrow, "Why, Karzai wouldn't last eight minutes in his palace."