This Commentary first appeared as an op-ed in, September 18, 2009

This week, the most senior U.S. official working with the United Nations in Afghanistan went on "leave" out of frustration over the lack of response to fraud in the country's presidential election. The head of the European Union's election-monitoring commission said that as many as one-third of the votes President Hamid Karzai received were "suspect" and should be investigated. And Afghans themselves continue to criticize not just the controversial election, but also the government's response to it. If this continues, it will fatally undermine the next Afghan government and the efforts of its international supporters. Steps should be taken immediately to avert a potentially violent legitimacy crisis.

We observed Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential and provincial council elections in Kabul. Among us we have almost seven decades of experience in following Afghan politics, and we feel thoroughly alarmed by the lack of consensus on how to resolve the brewing crisis over the disputed elections. It is by now clear that there took place an industrial-scale effort to distort the election results and defraud the Afghan people. Should this effort succeed, the chance of the Barack Obama administration's stabilizing Afghanistan and the broader region will be grim indeed. No one should be in any doubt as to the gravity and explosiveness of the situation.

The international community knew going into these elections that they were going to be problematic. We could and should have done better. There was evidence of fraud months beforehand, with over-registration of voters in the insecure southern parts of Afghanistan and voter registration cards for sale at markets in Kabul. Although we did not personally witness any significant electoral fraud on election day in Kabul, reports from our colleagues and contacts in other parts of Afghanistan provided evidence of significant, state-supported fraud.

We also knew well in advance that a lack of institutional capacity would make a quick determination of the winner impossible. The Independent Election Commission is now perceived by many Afghans as partisan, having included thousands of manifestly suspect votes in its tally. Some 2,851 complaints, 751 of which were classed as serious, were filed with the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which has limited organizational capacity to investigate them. It will likely take weeks to determine whether President Karzai, who has nominally surmounted the 50 percent hurdle, can avoid a runoff election. If the ECC invalidates enough votes to trigger a runoff, the onset of winter by late October and the resulting inaccessibility of remote areas would mean that such an election would have to wait until spring. This long delay, with Karzai continuing to hold the presidency, would trigger a constitutional crisis, and possibly an outbreak of serious violence in Kabul.

Some outsiders, including senior U.N. figures, are reported to favor ameliorating the situation by brokering a deal among the leading contenders for the presidency. They think a so-called "national unity government" would take the sting out of an outright Karzai victory by avoiding an ethnically divisive second round of voting. But an election lacking credibility is far more likely to inflame ethnic tensions. Behind-the-scenes negotiations that treat the wishes of the electorate as only one factor in a bargaining process between strongmen and foreign governments will simply add to the bitter cynicism that Afghans already have toward their government and the West. Acute crises of popular legitimacy cannot be overcome by secretive deals. What is essential is a process that Afghans regard as legitimate. And, strange though it might seem, many in Afghanistan's young electorate -- exposed in recent years to a great deal of talk about the virtues of democracy and free elections -- have come to believe what they have been told.

A second round of elections before the end of October offers the best way to demonstrate that Afghans can still have a free choice and, with better voting procedures and international supervision, a more honest outcome. Even if Karzai ultimately wins, it is important to demonstrate that the international community is united in its determination to back a democratic process, rather than make deals that support individuals. The ECC may have enough evidence of fraud to trigger a runoff by mid-October. However, if a decision is made to investigate all electoral fraud complaints and a runoff election is required in the spring, an interim government should be authorized by the country's Supreme Court and the Afghan National Assembly.

The Obama administration -- for which fraudulent elections pose an acute problem -- should tacitly sponsor this approach. News reports of massive voter fraud have already contributed to eroding popular support in the United States for the war. A nightmare scenario is one in which the United States is expected to partner with a government delegitimized by the very process by which it has hung on to power. Ordinary Afghans, denied the opportunity to use peaceful, democratic means to clean up their government, would be more vulnerable than ever to the blandishments of the Taliban, and this would add monumentally to the problems facing U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his colleagues. Our entire strategy for dealing with the Afghan insurgency could be at stake.

In November 1986, at the meeting of the Soviet Politburo that took the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev captured the Soviet Union's Afghan dilemma all too bluntly: "We have lost the battle for the Afghan people." If, in 2009, we opt to side with the fraudsters rather than the voters, we too will lose the battle for the Afghan people.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.