WASHINGTON (CNN) - A runoff election between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, appears likely, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States said Thursday.
Ambassador Said Jawad told an audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace that a runoff is "a likely scenario." Jawad is the first member of Karzai's government to say publicly that a runoff is probable.
Election officials in Afghanistan are expected to announce in coming days whether allegations of fraud in the disputed August 20 presidential election will force a second round of voting.
Preliminary results of the August election showed Karzai winning with 54 percent, but a U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission could discard enough ballots to drop Karzai's total below 50 percent, forcing a runoff.
The runoff, Jawad stressed, would have to be held quickly. He said a two-week deadline, as spelled out in the Afghan constitution, would be "impossible," but added that the voting should be held in either late October or early November. The final vote tally would be expected two weeks later.
If the election were not held by early November, he said, winter weather would make voting impossible and force a delay until spring of 2010. Such a delay, he warned, would be a "recipe for disaster" that would create confusion in Afghanistan and heighten tension between the United States and Karzai's government.
Afterward, Jawad told CNN such a delay would mean Afghanistan would be without a legitimate government for many months, preventing the country from working closely with the United States as President Barack Obama weighs a greater troop commitment to the country.
A runoff and uncertainty over the new Afghan government could delay a decision by Obama on whether to send as many as 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Administration officials have said that the lack of a strong, reliable Afghan partner would be a major factor in the administration's decision on what course the overall U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should follow.