Just a second chance to cheat?

Peter W. Galbraith is the former deputy special representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations in Afghanistan.

Massive fraud in the first round of Afghanistan’s presidential elections, held Aug. 20, plunged the country into a seven-week political crisis that gave the Taliban its greatest strategic gains in eight years of war. As things now stand, the second round, scheduled for Saturday, will be even worse.

The runoff election faces profound challenges. Afghanistan’s fraudulent first round undermined President Hamid Karzai’s credibility both at home and in key countries contributing troops to the region. Electoral misconduct is one important reason that President Obama is rightly reconsidering the wisdom of sending an additional 40,000 troops. The Taliban, which benefited from chaos created by the August fraud, now has every incentive to wreak havoc in the second round. Voters, many of whom risked their lives to vote in August, are understandably cynical when they see that their real votes were diluted by 1 million or more phony ones. As a result, turnout in the second round may be very low.

But the biggest challenge to holding fair elections in Afghanistan is the body administering them, the Independent Election Commission. Aside from its name, there is nothing independent about the commission. Karzai appointed all seven commissioners, and in every important question, the commission has sided with the Karzai campaign. The commission chairman, Azizullah Lodin, has publicly said that Karzai won the first round and will win the second, statements that are among the many sound reasons that Karzai’s opponent, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, has demanded Lodin’s resignation. There is overwhelming evidence that commission staff committed fraud, collaborated on fraud and knew about fraud that it failed to report.

A week ago, things in Afghanistan looked hopeful. After intense pressure from the United States and its allies and skillful diplomacy by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Karzai agreed to a runoff against Abdullah. (The bouquets tossed Karzai’s way in the wake of the agreement were undeserved; he had been resisting the runoff even though it was required by the Afghanistan Constitution and an electoral law he himself had signed.)


The U.N. mission in Afghanistan had announced steps to ensure that the fraud that occurred in the first round was not repeated in the second. These included the firing of 200 election officials responsible for polling centers with fraudulent results and a significant reduction in the number of polling centers, with the goal of closing what I call “ghost polling centers.” These were centers supposedly located in highly insecure areas or areas controlled by the Taliban but that never actually existed. Although they never opened, the ghost polling centers produced many of the more than 1 million fraudulent Karzai votes in the first round.

In the week since the agreement, it has become clear that Karzai and his allies are determined to win the second round by any means possible, regardless of the cost to the country or the international military effort. On Oct. 29, the election commission announced that there would be more polling centers in the second round than the first: 6,322, compared with the 6,187 that the commission claimed had opened in the first round. It is a sure bet that almost all of these additional polling centers will not actually exist, but they will produce lots of votes. Many of the fired election officials are being rehired, ostensibly because there are not enough literate people available to do the work. As a result, Afghanistan faces a toxic combination of more ghost polling centers in an election administered by the very people responsible for the fraud.

The Taliban has announced its intention to disrupt the elections, and last week carried out a murderous attack on a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul that housed many staff working on elections. Although these elections are described as Afghan-led, the election commission is heavily dependent on U.N. staff to carry out its logistical operations. Now, several of the U.N. staff are dead and many others have been evacuated for their safety, raising the practical question as to whether the commission is capable of pulling off the elections.

The U.N. Security Council gave the U.N. mission in Kabul the mandate to support the election commission in the holding of free, fair and transparent elections. But neither the commission nor Karzai has any interest in fair elections. Until recently, Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who heads the U.N. mission, has taken the view that the U.N. had no authority to push the election commission to behave in a nonpartisan manner, even though the United Nations is paying about $200 million to hold the elections.

I served as Eide’s deputy and disagreed with his approach. With so much at stake for the success of the international military mission, I felt that the U.N. should view the election commission as the partisan body that it is and use our substantial leverage to insist on procedures to minimize fraud. Although ours was a private disagreement over policy, Eide lobbied for my removal, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon complied. Ban continues to embrace the laissez-faire approach, last week telling a reporter that the number of polling centers is entirely up to the election commission, even though everyone understands that more polling centers mean more ghost polling centers and more fraud.

Most recently, Eide has tried to take a more aggressive approach, even telling foreign diplomats he wanted Karzai replaced by an interim government (an unconstitutional solution that could increase cynicism in Afghanistan about the democratic process). But Eide is the victim of his past passivity. The election commission has thumbed its nose at the U.N. by increasing the number of polling centers and rehiring the corrupt election officials.

With less than a week to go until the scheduled runoff, there is not much the U.S. can do to avoid a disastrous rerun of the August elections. But the Obama administration should be deeply skeptical about whatever results are announced. When the election commission announced preliminary results from the first round, Karzai’s total stood at 54% and Abdullah’s at 29%. A separate, U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission examined just 10% of the suspect ballots and took Karzai’s total slightly below the 50% mark needed to avoid a runoff. ECC insiders tell me that they believe a full recount would have reduced the Karzai total to 41% and raised the Abdullah total to 34%. Although the conventional wisdom holds that Karzai will easily win the second round, that might not be true in an honest election.

As things stand, it is all but certain that there will not be an honest vote in Afghanistan on Saturday.