Of all the possible outcomes of the Afghan presidential election in August, the one that actually emerged – with supporters of the apparent victor President Hamid Karzai accused of widespread voting fraud – is perhaps the worst.
The final result was due to be announced last month but now that must wait on the results of an investigation by the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission. If enough fraudulent ballots are identified, there would be a powerful case for a run-off election between Mr Karzai and his nearest challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
This poses a dilemma for Afghanistan's Western sponsors. If they were to ignore the evidence of fraud and support a second term for President Karzai, it would leave them open to accusations of propping up a corrupt and illegitimate regime. But if they push for a run-off, there is a risk of a prolonged power vacuum in Afghanistan since such a poll could probably not feasibly take place until next spring.
It is a hard choice, but the only realistic way forward is to support the UN election-scrutiny process and accept whatever it throws up, no matter how inconvenient. The US, Britain and France are right to pressure the two leading candidates to respect the commission's findings. They are also right to moot a unity government between Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah as a possible way out. This is not, however, proving popular in Kabul. President Karzai is already mounting furious opposition to a run-off.
It is easy to feel sympathy for the Afghan president. His sponsors have made ludicrously conflicting demands of him in recent years. At times he has been castigated for doing deals with human-rights abusing warlords, and at others condemned for being a weak president whose writ does not run beyond Kabul. The simple fact is that the only way anyone could hold this broken and divided country together is through working with unsavoury regional power brokers. Furthermore, many Afghans would probably regard security, rather than democracy, as the priority of the hour. The 40 to 50 per cent voter turnout in August was significantly down on the 70 per cent who voted four years ago. It is doubtful whether there would be any enthusiasm for another round of voting.
Yet it would be fatal for the Nato mission in Afghanistan if these elections came to be regarded as a sham. Western countries would find it politically impossible to send more troops (or indeed keep their existing ones in place) to support a crooked regime. Barack Obama is unlikely to make a decision on the 40,000 reinforcements requested by his commander, General Stanley McChrystal, to protect the Afghan population from an increasingly aggressive Taliban until this political stalemate is broken.
The expectations in the West about the sort of society that can be built in Afghanistan need to be rolled back. But they can only be rolled back so far. Western electorates will not tolerate more of their troops dying to prop up an illegitimate government. The drumbeat of those calling for withdrawal is growing louder. It will grow louder still unless this crisis is resolved.
President Karzai has nightmarish problems to grapple with at home. But he needs to understand that by refusing to address doubts about this election, both in Afghanistan and abroad, he is only creating further problems for himself and jeopardising anew his country's future.