KABUL It may have looked like a done deal for President Hamid Karzai and many Afghans when, one by one, key ethnic chiefs and regional power brokers threw their weight behind the incumbent ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential election.
But, almost two months on and still no clear result, Karzai now faces an uphill task to restore public confidence in his team already undermined by allegations of electoral fraud.
A master coalition builder, Karzai is widely believed to have promised government positions in a future cabinet and regional governorships in return for electoral support.
The election result, expected later this week, could still force Karzai into a run-off with his main rival if a fraud panel annuls enough votes to push him below the 50 percent threshold.
But if he emerges victorious after all, Karzai will face another tough constituency in the form of his Western backers who would want him to end his cosy alliance with former warlords.
"We are very clear that if this election results in his being re-elected, there must be a new relationship between him and the people of Afghanistan," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week.
Like all of Karzai's cabinets since he took power after the downfall of the Taliban in 2001, the next government is likely to comprise a mixture of former guerrilla chiefs, tribal leaders and foreign-educated technocrats endorsed by the West.
Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta told Reuters this week that the Afghan leader was keen to form an inclusive government based on meritocracy.
In another major task, Karzai will have to fill not only the cabinet in Kabul, but also powerful governorships across the volatile country. The list of those who backed him is long but it is unclear what promises were made to secure their support.
"Karzai managed to gain a large political consensus as a strong shield for the elections," Razaaq Mamoon, a journalist and writer, said of Karzai's pre-election deals with factional and regional commanders.
The intricacy of Afghanistan's history, battered by three decades of foreign invasions and civil war, may again force Karzai to accommodate not only his friends but also foes in order to maintain the delicate ethnic balance.
An ethnic Pashtun with a strong southern base, Karzai has gained the support of almost all those who claim to be leaders of their respective tribes. His main rival, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, is more popular among Tajiks in the north.
In an interview with Reuters this week, Abdullah hinted he could support some kind of government of national unity, although he is ruling out joining it "at the moment".
As part of his inclusive policy, Karzai has also accepted to bring in politicians supported by the West.
Having some 68,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan along with 40,000 from its NATO allies, the United States is keen to have a strong say in a future Afghan government, analysts say.
"The West wants to have a direct say about the situation of Afghanistan and less influence of Karzai," said Mamoon.
"The West and America cannot afford to waste any time, their soldiers' blood and money in Afghanistan -- and the same time lose credibility and control over its (Afghan) government".
With Karzai already pledging key government positions to factional leaders in return for the support they provided for him in the poll, Washington has been eyeing alternative ways to influence Karzai's way of governance.
One way to do it is to create several "key committees" to oversee cabinet issues such as finance, security and politics as a way of compromise, analysts say.
These committees are expected to be run by technocrats either from Karzai's electoral rivals or Western-leaning professionals.
Waheed Mozhdah, an analyst and writer, said this policy could be part of broader Western plans to start grooming a new generation of Karzai's successors.
"At the same time," he said, "They want to have someone to gain experience while working with Karzai so they can run for office in the next election when Karzai's second term expires."
(Editing by Maria Golovnina and Sanjeev Miglani