The runner-up in Afghanistan's presidential election pushed Tuesday for an interim government to shepherd the country through the winter if it's too difficult or dangerous to organize a runoff in the coming weeks.
The possibility of a runoff has loomed larger after a UN-backed panel Monday threw out a third of President Hamid Karzai's votes from the Aug. 20 ballot. Karzai was expected to acknowledge the need for a runoff with chief rival Abdullah Abdullah after days of resisting fraud rulings that pulled his totals below the 50 percent threshold.
US Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Karzai again Tuesday - his fifth meeting in as many days. He also met again Tuesday with Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, according to the US Embassy.
Another election risks the same fraud that derailed the August vote, along with inciting violence and increasing ethnic divisions. A November runoff also could be hampered by winter snows that block off much of the north of the country starting mid-month.
The primary alternative that has been floated is a power-sharing deal, though the form that might take is unclear. And it could take weeks or months to hammer out an agreement between the two rivals.
So two months since the Aug. 20 poll that many hoped would re-establish the legitimacy of Afghanistan's government, the United States is still far from finding a government it can point to as a legitimate partner in the increasingly violent battle against the Taliban.
In the latest fighting, Afghan and international forces killed about half a dozen militants during a raid on compounds used by a Taliban commander in eastern Wardak province on Tuesday, the U.S. military said in a statement.
A spokesman for the Abdullah campaign said they do not consider a coalition or power-sharing government an acceptable alternative.
"A coalition is against the law and does not benefit the political process of the country," Fazel Sancharaki said, noting that Afghan electoral law has no provisions for such a process.
"If anyone proposes that, they should have very strong reasons for it." He did not elaborate on what reasons might persuade Abdullah to consider such an option.
Abdullah still sees a second-round vote as the best path, he said. If there are security or weather concerns that mean a runoff can't be held before spring, some sort of interim administration should need to be worked out between the two candidates and with the help of the international community, Sancharaki said.
"Karzai's term is over, we cannot accept him for several more months," he said.
The agreement that a runoff is required is likely just the first step in negotiations to iron out these differences between the Karzai and Abdullah camps.
The US appears to be backing a power-sharing deal, but there are a number of possible scenarios. In Afghanistan, many have also suggested holding a loya jirga - a traditional Afghan meeting where decisions are made through a combination of negotiation and consensus.
American officials have repeatedly said they're pushing for a "legitimate government" in Afghanistan, which does not necessarily need to be elected. People familiar with the talks have said both Karzai and Abdullah have said privately that they're open to the idea of a coalition, though with very different interpretations of what that would mean and when it could happen.
The Aug. 20 poll was characterized by Taliban attacks on polling stations and government buildings that killed dozens of people. In some areas, militants cut off the ink-marked fingers of people who had voted.
Turnout was dampened during that vote because of threats of violence from the Taliban and many say even fewer people would come out in a runoff.
Despite the danger, some Afghans in the southern city of Kandahar - a Karzai stronghold where many votes ended up thrown out for fraud - said they would prefer a runoff to a coalition government. Karzai is widely expected to prevail in a runoff vote.
Abdur Rahman, who runs a foreign exchange bureau in Kandahar, said a runoff would be difficult, but if there is no other option, the government should organize one.
"We support a runoff, but a new coalition government would not be good for Afghanistan," said 46-year-old Rahman, who voted for Karzai. "Karzai already has a coalition. Why would he make any deal with Abdullah or give him power?"