The top challenger to President Hamid Karzai in the Nov. 7 election prepared Saturday to withdraw from the race, complicating President Obama's deliberations over whether to expand the war effort in Afghanistan at a critical moment. Aides to Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, indicated that their candidate would clarify his intentions at a meeting Sunday of supporters from across the country. A decision to leave the race could make it more difficult for Obama to send additional U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan if the next government is not accepted by the Afghan electorate as a result. Although advisers said Abdullah has yet to make up his mind, they suggested that Karzai effectively pushed him from the race by declining to fire the country's top election official, who oversaw the flawed first round in August, and take other steps to ensure a fair vote. A U.N.-backed audit of the first-round balloting found that nearly one in three votes cast for Karzai was fraudulent. Obama administration officials played down Abdullah's threat, calling it a personal calculation that would probably have little bearing on whether a majority of Afghans accept the result of the vote. Abdullah's name will appear on the already-printed ballots regardless of his decision, and his absence could ensure a smoother campaign and vote count if he declines to condemn Karzai as he drops out. "I think it is his decision to make," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a news conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "But I do not think it affects the legitimacy. When President Karzai accepted a runoff without knowing what the outcome would be, that bestowed legitimacy from that moment." After several weeks of deliberations, Obama is in the final stage of deciding how to proceed in Afghanistan, where the United States is waging an eight-year-old war he has called one of "necessity." Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has requested tens of thousands of additional troops to support a counterinsurgency strategy to weaken the Taliban and protect the Afghan population. Some senior Obama advisers, however, are arguing for a plan focused more narrowly on defeating al-Qaeda than on fighting an indigenous insurgency and helping to build an effective Afghan state. The legitimacy of the Afghan government is essential to McChrystal's broader strategy, which requires not only a militarily effective partner in Kabul but also a government that the majority of Afghans believes is a viable alternative to the Taliban. Karzai was favored to win a second five-year term, but a withdrawal by Abdullah could leave many Afghans dissatisfied with the next government. "We don't want to boycott, but Mr. Karzai has not accepted any conditions, so he left us with no other choice," said one member of Abdullah's political team, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Abdullah has not yet announced his plans. "There is no guarantee that a second round would be free and fair. It would only create more problems than it solves." A question of legality U.S. officials had pressed Karzai to accept the runoff after the flawed Aug. 20 vote, and he reluctantly agreed, although there was widespread concern among Afghans that the second round would be marred by fraud and even more vulnerable to insurgent attacks than the first poll. This week, the Taliban killed five U.N. workers in Kabul and threatened to sabotage the Nov. 7 vote. Even after hundreds of thousands of votes for Karzai were found invalid and discounted after the first round, the president won more than 49 percent of the vote, while Abdullah won less than 30 percent. A senior Obama administration official involved in the policy review said of Abdullah on Saturday: "It's not surprising he's not going to contest an election he wasn't going to win." "This is not a challenge in any way to the process of choosing the next Afghan president. This is politics," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about White House thinking, citing the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue. "However this shakes out, it does not affect the legitimacy of the process in the way, for example, that there were questions when Karzai was considering whether or not to accept the runoff." Aides to Karzai said Saturday that Abdullah has no right to boycott the election and that if he does, it will be up to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to decide what to do. But they also said he is legally allowed to resign from the race, in which case Karzai would automatically win. "He can resign, but he cannot boycott, because he already accepted the election the first time," Moinuddin Manastial, a legislator and campaign aide to Karzai, said late Saturday. "He is making excuses to do something that is not in the constitution, while we are ready to go for the elections 100 percent." Election officials said that they are still preparing to hold the vote, that Afghan security forces are ready to secure the more than 6,000 polling stations across the country and that neither candidate has the right to withdraw at this late date. Widespread skepticism Independent election experts said it is not clear what will happen if Abdullah, who has been seeking a power-sharing government with Karzai, quits the race. They said most of the possible options -- canceling the vote and having Karzai declared president, having him run alone, or postponing the race until spring and replacing Abdullah with the No. 3 vote-getter -- would either leave the country in political limbo or Karzai as head of a weak new administration. "The situation is both depressing and complicated," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the private Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. "The law is silent on what to do in this situation, and whatever happens is likely to bring us more deeply into trouble, because we will probably end up with a president who did not get the minimum number of votes in a fair election." Local analysts and Kabul residents glued to TV news stations Saturday expressed concern that violence could erupt in the capital and other cities if Abdullah quits the race amid angry recriminations. Some of Abdullah's powerful supporters who command regional or private militias have vowed not to recognize or obey a new Karzai administration. Abdullah, who abruptly canceled a scheduled trip to India on Saturday, has delayed announcing his decision for the past several days amid a flurry of private negotiations and meetings involving Karzai, the challenger and their political aides and allies, as well as several foreign diplomats. But sources close to the discussions told various media outlets in recent days that talks between the two rivals collapsed after Karzai announced that he would not meet Abdullah's demands to fire the election commission chairman and other officials. Since then, several sources said, Abdullah has leaned toward boycotting the contest. Although Abdullah's public manner has been polite and his demands have sounded reasonable, there is widespread public skepticism about his sincerity. Some analysts say he wants to remain in the race but is surrounded by ambitious allies who have been pressing him to make a deal with Karzai. Diplomatic sources said last week that Karzai was open to forming a "government of unity" after the elections that would include Abdullah and his allies, but that he would not make any deal in advance. Some experts and diplomats have suggested that if the country's political crisis deepens or violence erupts, the wisest solution would be to establish an interim or caretaker government and hold a new election in the spring, when the winter snows have melted and voters can go to the polls again.(Washington Post )