The fraud-tainted Afghan presidential election of August 20 has deepened the political crisis in the country against the backdrop of the Taliban insurgency which has spread like wildfire to the relatively peaceful provinces of the north such as Balkh and Kunduz. Meanwhile the Independent Election Commission, whose nine members were appointed through presidential decree, has declared Hamid Karzai the clear winner with 54.3 percent of the votes with his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, trailing with only 28.3 percent. The announcement was premature and has generated further controversy because complaints of massive rigging are still being investigated. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which completed its report on September 12, indicated that 1,253,806 ballots or 23 percent of the total could be fraudulent. Analysts believe that this would reduce Karzai's share to 47.8 percent thereby necessitating a second round which is mandatory under the 2004 constitution if a candidate does not secure more than 50 percent of the votes. The findings of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, though startling, are corroborated by other reports particularly from the more heavily populated Pushtun-majority areas in the south and east. For instance, according to the New York Times, 350,000 pro-Karzai votes were counted in his home province, Kandahar, though the turnout was a paltry 25,000. The UN-appointed Election Complaints Commission, which is headed by a Canadian, has disclosed that no less than 2,800 polling sites have reported fraud and out of these 726 are serious enough to sway the outcome. Such reports have prompted British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to declare: "We will not be a party to any whitewash in respect of this election. It is vital there is a credible result." The controversy has, however, not dissuaded President Zardari from publicly reiterating his support for Karzai thereby tacitly acknowledging the latter's electoral triumph. Karzai has refuted the allegations of mass rigging. He recently stated: "Media has reported major fraud. It wasn't that big. If there was fraud, it was small...it happens all over the world." His statements to the press are also further complicating the situation by indirectly blaming foreign hands behind these rumours of electoral fraud: "I hope our foreign friends respect the people of Afghanistan and let the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission fulfil their work without prejudice." Abdullah Abdullah has denounced the election as "state-engineered fraud" and threatened that his supporters may stage protests if the credible evidence of vote tampering, ballot box stuffing and intimidation is not addressed. His camp consisting mainly of the Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group, has claimed that one in every five votes was bogus. International observers fear that the protests could turn violent and further polarize the country along ethnic lines to the advantage of the Al-Qaeda-supported Taliban insurgency. According to the International Council on Security and Development, the influence of the Taliban has spread to more than 70 percent of the country. The options available to defuse this volatile situation are limited. An outright Karzai victory as announced by the Independent Election Commission in the face of massive allegations of fraud has already been rejected by all the other candidates and will only exacerbate existing tensions and instability. The investigations of the electoral complaints will take several weeks and with the beginning of the winter snows a second round of voting will not be possible before March or April 2010. Afghanistan just cannot afford the continuation of the uncertainty till then. Under the circumstances, the only viable option seems to be the establishment of a national unity government. The US and the other countries involved in Afghanistan are said to be quietly working behind the scene to bring about such an outcome. However these efforts have not been helped by disclosures from the Karzai camp that Abdullah Abdullah has asked for 12 ministries as the price for cooperation. This has been vehemently denied by the latter who stated on September 12: "A coalition with a fraudulent regime? I won't find myself in such a system. Those who voted for me wanted change." Despite this rhetoric, there is no other alternative. If such an inclusive government does eventually emerge, it will be of an interim nature till a second round of voting can be held. Furthermore such a dispensation will have to reflect the ethnic map of Afghanistan. Despite constituting 44 percent of the population, the Pushtuns have been sidelined in the present administration. A balanced multi-ethnic government is indispensable for the stability of the country. The writer is the editor-in-chief of Criterion Quarterly. E-mail: mushfiq.murshed@gmail.com