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U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Monday as pressure grew to abandon plans for a risky run-off vote after the withdrawal of President Hamid Karzai's only rival.

The withdrawal of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah from the November 7 run-off has cast doubts over the legitimacy of the next government, which almost certainly will be led by Karzai.

The head of the government-appointed Independent Election Commission said he was concerned about security risks associated with a new election, a day after the commission said it would press ahead with the vote.

"If we go for a run-off and it did not give much legitimacy to the president and many lives are lost, it is also a concern for us," Daoud Ali Najafi, chief electoral officer of the IEC, told Reuters.

Behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to resolve the prolonged political crisis have gathered pace ahead of the run-off, ordered after a UN-led investigation panel found widespread fraud in favor of Karzai in the August 20 election. UN chief Ban ki-Moon will meet both Karzai and Abdullah to discuss development work, a U.N. statement said.

"The Secretary-General will also meet Dr Abdullah Abdullah and President Hamid Karzai to assure them and the Afghan people of the continuing support of the United Nations toward the development of the country and the humanitarian assistance that the U.N. provides to millions of Afghans everyday," the statement said.

A weakened Afghan government under Karzai would be a blow for U.S. President Barack Obama as he considers whether to send up to 40,000 more troops to fight a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.

Western officials in Kabul refused to confirm even whether they were in discussions with the IEC but privately acknowledge a run-off with Karzai as the only candidate would cast serious doubts over the credibility of his government.

"The IEC is meeting today and we hope that they'll reach a decision on the second round later in the day," a Western diplomat in Kabul, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters.

While the Afghan constitution is unclear, options available to the IEC include cancelling the run-off or referring the matter to Afghanistan's Supreme Court for a decision.

Abdullah's withdrawal, and a decision to push ahead with the process, would present the possibility of foreign countries being asked to put more troops at risk to secure an election in which the winner is already known.

Military deaths have already reached record levels this year, with October the bloodiest month of the eight-year war for U.S. forces. Karzai's camp on Sunday ruled out a coalition with Abdullah, dashing hopes the two leaders could together find a way out of the impasse.

Abdullah left the door open for future discussions but said no deals had been struck in return for his withdrawal, seen by diplomats as one way to spare the country more uncertainty that discredits the government and can only aid the insurgency.

He expressed strong reservations about the credibility of the election process after widespread fraud marred the first round vote. Karzai had been favorite to win the run-off after getting more votes in an August 20 first round. His campaign team also said the run-off would go ahead.

Abdullah said he quit because demands he had sought from the government and the IEC, including the sacking of Afghanistan's top election official, had not been met. The Taliban, which have vowed to disrupt the polls again, said Abdullah's withdrawal made no difference.

Source: reuters

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