Afghan Voting Peaceful, but Fraud Alleged

Times Staff Writers

Three years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghans voted in massive numbers Saturday to elect their president for the first time. But the largely peaceful poll quickly fell under a cloud of uncertainty as 15 candidates alleged irregularities and fraud and said they would deem any result illegitimate.

The dispute stemmed from the supposedly indelible ink applied to voters’ thumbs to prevent them from casting ballots more than once. In many precincts, voters said, washable ink was used or indelible ink was applied improperly, allowing the marking to rub off and opening the door to repeated voting.

“It’s Afghanistan’s hanging chad,” said Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the operations commander for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, who coordinated an extensive and apparently successful security operation to counter bomb plots and other attacks threatened by militants loyal to the Taliban.


The challenge to the election’s legitimacy jeopardized hopes for national unity after more than two decades of war and chaos. It also could be a setback for the United States, which has 18,000 troops in Afghanistan and has invested heavily in turning the country into a democracy since invading in fall 2001.

International officials, including U.N. special representative Jean Arnault and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, sought to play down the controversy and emphasize the broad participation and near absence of violence.

Khalilzad said late Saturday that all candidates had a duty to respect the results, win or lose.

“The responsibility of all candidates is not to raise allegations of wrongdoing intended solely to paralyze the democratic process,” he said. “For Afghanistan to win, the losers in the election should not undermine the achievement of the Afghan people.”

Given the country’s primitive infrastructure -- some villages are accessible only by mountain footpaths -- and election workers’ lack of experience, ballot-counting was expected to take as long as three weeks. More than 10 million voters had registered, and enthusiastic crowds lined up at many polling stations.

But before the first ballot was cast, there was widespread expectation that the victor would be incumbent Hamid Karzai, who was chosen as interim prime minister in December 2001 by a small group of Afghans at talks in Germany, and named interim president by a national conference the following year.


Karzai, an ethnic Pushtun aristocrat who has enjoyed U.S. backing over the last three years, has been hoping the election will give him a popular mandate to rein in the warlords and drug lords who hold sway in much of the country outside the capital, Kabul.

At a news conference, he rejected complaints from the 15 challengers that the election had been tainted.

“The election was free and fair,” Karzai said. The millions of Afghans who voted should be enough to rebuff the complaints, he said, “because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited hours and hours to vote.”

The joint U.N.-Afghan election body overseeing the vote reject the calls to halt the balloting and declare the election void. But officials promised to thoroughly investigate the complaints.

“Given the complexities of this electoral process, there have inevitably been some technical problems,” the Joint Electoral Management Body conceded in a statement. Nevertheless, “the voters of Afghanistan have turned out in large numbers and ... the process overall has been safe and orderly.”

“Halting the voting at this point is unjustified and would deny

Determining how extensive the problems were could be difficult, given that only about 230 international observers were on hand at polls nationwide. Of the 16,000 Afghan observers monitoring the vote, 75% were partisan political operatives.


Declaring the $200-million election void would be a financial catastrophe and might call into question the fragile accord that has kept the country relatively stable for three years.

The 15 candidates who said they would reject the results included Karzai’s chief rival, former Education Minister Younis Qanooni, an ethnic Tajik and veteran mujahedin fighter who has sought support from his ethnic group and from veterans of the 1979-89 fight against Soviet occupation, the civil war of the early 1990s and the resistance to the Taliban in the late 1990s.

Candidate Abdul Sattar Sirat, a Pushtun professor of Islamic literature who hosted a gathering of Karzai’s opponents at his home Saturday, said, “Any government as a result of this election is not legitimate.”

Sirat failed to forge an anti-Karzai alliance in discussions among the candidates before the election. But the group quickly united and pounced Saturday on the complaints over the ink.

Amid widespread concern that many people had registered to vote several times and received multiple registration cards, use of the indelible ink was considered necessary to prevent repeat voting.

Karzai’s foes raised other concerns. Sirat cited accusations that police and local officials in several areas were coercing people to vote for Karzai, and that ballot papers and polling stations had been inadequate or missing elsewhere.


Another anti-Karzai candidate, Abdul Latif Pedram, a Tajik poet and intellectual, broadened the criticism by alleging that the election had been manipulated by the United States to ensure a Karzai victory. His comment reflected resentment among some politicians that Khalilzad, the ambassador, on occasion had appeared to endorse Karzai and act as his manager.

“This government will never be really representative of the Afghan nation because it will be the government that George Bush wanted to maintain control,” Pedram said. “We will never agree.”

Khalilzad last week denied the allegations and insisted that Washington would support whoever won. Told about Pedram’s comments Saturday, a U.S. official said with a laugh, “The Afghans voted today. The United States did not vote.”

President Bush, campaigning Saturday in Waterloo, Iowa, hailed the election.

“A really great thing is happening in Afghanistan,” he said. “The people of that country, who just three years ago were suffering under the brutal regime of the Taliban, are going to the polls.... Amazing, isn’t it? Freedom is beautiful.”

A total of 18 candidates were on Saturday’s ballot, though two of them pulled out before the vote and urged their supporters to back Karzai.

To win outright, a candidate must capture 50% of the vote; otherwise a runoff will be held between the top two finishers.


Visits by Los Angeles Times correspondents to polling stations around the country gave a mixed picture of the voting. There were long lines, enthusiasm and hopefulness among young and old. Yet the eagerness of some was tempered by reports of foul-ups with the ink and ballot papers, and in some cases, alleged attempts at cheating and intimidation.

For women in particular, who under the Taliban were second-class citizens and denied education and a role in public life, it was a day of liberation. Many came to the polls with their daughters. They lined up by the hundreds at separate polling stations, staffed by female officials.

“I want to participate fully and want other women to do the same,” said Malalai, 38, who like many Afghans uses only one name. “I told my daughter, Sheila, to vote because she is the future generation.”

In the capital, the day dawned grim -- cold and gray, with the air filled by wind-whipped dust. But voters seemed undeterred as they made their way to polling stations, some walking, some on bicycles, some war amputees hobbling on crutches or pushed in wheelchairs.

In the Panjao district in the central highlands, voters began lining up at 3 a.m. -- four hours before polls were to open -- despite a storm that left a foot of snow, American officers at Bagram air base said.

South of Kabul, in the village of Charasia, Rahman Gul said nearly the entire community had turned out and “everybody is happy. This is our first time to have an election.”


But as he spoke, Mohammed Nabi, a tall, black-bearded man who lost a hand fighting the Soviet army, came in to complain that an election official had voted for his wife when she showed some confusion about the procedure.

“This election is great for us, if it is honest,” Nabi said. “Now I am not sure.”

In southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban and its allies continue to battle U.S. and Afghan forces, militants failed to deliver on threats to disrupt the election with widespread attacks, although a few incidences of violence were reported.

In Oruzgan province, U.S. officials reported 40 “anti-government” militiamen were killed in an ongoing U.S.-Afghan campaign, but said the violence was not directly related to the vote. There also were reports of scattered mine blasts in Kandahar that left about a dozen people dead.

As for complaints of intimidation, election monitors for Qanooni claimed that local police and Afghan election officials had harassed his supporters and would-be voters.

Najibullah, who asked to be identified by one name because he feared retribution, said officials at the Shahr-e-Safa polling station in Zabol province “were telling people who they should vote for. They were telling people that they should vote for Karzai.

“And when I wanted to write a complaint letter to the head U.N. election official in [the provincial capital] Qalat, they took my paper and ordered me out of the polling station. The local police kicked me out.”


Daniszewski reported from Kabul and Zucchino from Bagram air base. Times staff writers Paul Watson in Shahr-e-Safa, Maura Reynolds in Waterloo and special correspondent Hamida Ghafour in Kabul contributed to this report.