Explosive details have emerged of an encounter between Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. At one point the Afghan president whipped off his distinctive karakul sheepskin hat and slammed it onto the table where the two men were having dinner, a day after the disputed August 20 election. For an Afghan man to do that, its a big gesture, said a local businessman. Its like throwing down the gauntlet. The fiery meeting appears to have plunged American-Afghan relations to a post-Taliban low. Karzai used to enjoy pally video-conferencing with George Bush but President Barack Obamas administration has not hidden its disdain for him. It blames Karzai for running a government whose authority was eroded by corruption and mismanagement. His likely re-election will be tainted by allegations of vote-rigging. When the two men clashed, Karzais campaign team had already claimed victory, fuelling accusations that the election was rigged. At that point there had been no official results. When Holbrooke raised the possibility of a run-off, Karzai flew into a rage and accused Holbrooke of forcing a second round against the interests of Afghanistan. They were discussing different scenarios and one of them was the possibility of a run-off, said a Karzai insider. Thats when there was a misunderstanding. There were strong words from both men. American officials downplayed the row yesterday and said they believed Karzais agents leaked a selective version of the meeting to make it look as if he was resisting US pressure to force him to hold a second round when he was already the winner. To win the elections in the first round Karzai needs more than 50%. Yesterday, with a third of results announced, he was leading his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, by 46% to 31%. But the Independent Election Commission is drip-releasing the figures and with a spectacularly low turnout in the war-torn south, home to most of Karzais supporters, it is still not certain he will achieve his target. The allegations of massive fraud have left many Afghans wondering what sort of democracy the West wants in their country. Moreover, Abdullah has threatened not to accept the result if it is shown to have been rigged, raising the possibility of violence. Holbrooke will be meeting his British, French and German counterparts in Paris on Wednesday. A French official said Holbrooke wanted a run-off in order to chasten Karzai and show him his power was limited and dependent on genuine popular support.