Hamid Karzai ousts 2 Afghan officials linked to vote fraud

In an apparent capitulation to international pressure, the government of President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday announced the removal of two top election officials who were implicated in widespread fraud in last summer’s balloting for president.

The legal framework for coming parliamentary elections has been a key point of contention between Karzai and Western governments. Karzai has resisted demands for what diplomats called “root-and-branch” reform of Afghanistan’s electoral system before the vote, which is set for September.

Word of the electoral shake-up came from Karzai’s spokesman, Waheed Omar, who told reporters in Kabul that Azizullah Lodin, director of the Independent Election Commission, had stepped down, together with Daoud Ali Najafi, the commission’s chief electoral advisor.

Several foreign monitoring groups had accused Lodin and Najafi of abetting massive vote-rigging in August’s presidential balloting.

After an initial vote count, a separate fraud- auditing body stripped Karzai of about one-third of the ballots cast for him, throwing the race to a runoff. That second round was averted, however, when the Afghan leader’s main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out and Karzai was declared the winner.

Despite its name, the Independent Election Commission, the main body overseeing elections, is appointed by the president. During and after August’s vote, Karzai’s opponents accused Lodin of favoring the president, who had handpicked him.

Replacements for the two officials have not yet been named.

Arrangements for the parliamentary elections have been an inflammatory topic in recent days, driving a wedge between Karzai and his Western patrons just as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is preparing for a massive military offensive in Afghanistan’s south this summer.

Discord between Karzai and the Obama administration escalated April 1 when Karzai, addressing election officials, blamed vote fraud on foreign interference and called it part of a Western conspiracy to weaken his government.

Similarly bellicose comments by the Afghan leader in ensuing days drew a warning from the White House on Tuesday that Karzai, who has been invited to visit President Obama in Washington, could be disinvited if his outbursts continue.

Despite the seriousness with which Karzai’s comments were viewed in Washington and among some Western diplomats in Kabul, Karzai spokesman Omar sought to minimize the significance of the tense exchanges with the White House.

“It did not have any effect on strategic relations with the United States and the international community,” Omar said.