|Karzai was hellbent on victory. Afghans will pay the price
The declaration of victory caps weeks of farce and failure, especially for the UN. To send more troops now would be a waste
Afghanistan's presidential election is over, and it was a fiasco. The decision by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to cancel the second round and declare the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, the victor concludes a process that undermined Afghanistan's nascent democracy. In the US and Europe, the fraud-tainted elections halted the momentum for President Obama's new Afghanistan strategy and undercut support for sending more troops.
The election was effectively over on Sunday when Karzai's remaining rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, announced he would not run. Abdullah Abdullah did not withdraw because he calculated he could not win, as some have uncharitably implied, but because he knew the election would not be honest. Indeed, in an honest election, he might have had a chance.
In the first round on 20 August, more than 1m fraudulent votes were recorded for Karzai, taking his total to 54% – above the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Two factors made this level of fraud possible: ghost polling centres and corrupt election commission staff. Under the guise of maximising participation, the pro-Karzai IEC located at least 1,500 polling centres in places either controlled by the Taliban or so insecure that no one from the government side could go there. These centres never actually existed, but since the locations were inaccessible to candidate agents, observers and voters, it was easy for corrupt election officials to say they were open and to record hundreds of thousands of votes from them.
Much of the fraud was blatant. In many polling centres Karzai won 100% of the votes and results were recorded in improbably even numbers, such as 500 to zero. This made it relatively easy for the Electoral Complaints Commission, a UN-backed watchdog set up under Afghan law, to detect and toss out many fraudulent ballots. In the end, it excluded enough phoney votes to reduce Karzai's total to 49.67%, setting up the runoff. Because it only needed to determine if a runoff was required, the ECC did not do a full recount but instead audited a representative sample of votes.
If the ECC had done a full recount, Karzai's total would have been substantially lower. Insiders tell me that an honest result would have had Karzai at 41% and Abdullah at 34%. While Karzai was still the favourite in the second round, Abdullah clearly had a chance to overtake him, especially if he could capitalise on public disgust with the fraud. Karzai, however, took no chances. Abdullah and the UN asked the IEC to reduce the number of polling places by eliminating the ghost polling centres and to replace staff who committed fraud. Instead, the IEC – whose members Karzai appointed and who serve his interests – increased the number of centres and rehired corrupt staff. Not only was fraud more likely in the second round than the first, it also would have been harder to detect as the perpetrators presumably would have learned to be more subtle. Knowing the Taliban were determined to use violence to disrupt the vote, Abdullah did the statesmanlike thing. He withdrew rather than ask Afghans to risk their lives voting in a phoney election.
This outcome is a huge failure for the international community, and in particular the UN, which mobilised $300m million to pay for the elections and was supposed to help produce a fair outcome. UN professionals managed all aspects of the election process, from public education to the printing of ballots, while the UN-backed ECC handled hundreds of major complaints and audited more than 1,000 ballot boxes. Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who heads the UN mission, claimed the audit process proved that the Afghan institutions worked, since the ECC took away Karzai's first-round victory. But the system did not work. The IEC deliberately adopted procedures that made an honest second round impossible.
There was a time when the UN could have made a difference. As deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, I tried in July to get the IEC to remove the ghost polling centres from the elections roster. After the elections, I pushed the IEC to stick to its anti-fraud safeguards which, if maintained, would have excluded enough obviously fraudulent Karzai votes to have the runoff in September. In both instances, Eide overruled me, arguing that the UN mandate was only to support the Afghan institutions in their decisions, not to tell them to hold an honest election. Our disagreement over how to handle election fraud led Eide to engineer my dismissal. When he finally realised the IEC was not an independent body, it was too late. This week the IEC simply thumbed its nose at his efforts to reduce the number of polling centres and fire corrupt staff.
Unfortunately, we now have to live with the consequences. Before the election, Karzai was seen both at home and abroad as ineffective and tolerating corruption. Now, many Afghans see him as illegitimate while large parts of the public in the troop-contributing countries consider him irredeemably tainted by the fraud. Western leaders say they will work with Karzai, as they must, but he cannot be an effective partner in Obama's enhanced counter-insurgency strategy. And without an effective Afghan partner, the strategy will not work.
With support from some key countries, Kai Eide is now promoting a new compact between Karzai and the Afghan people. Elections are, of course, the normal way to establish such a compact. More promises, which will not be honored, cannot paper over the consequences of a dishonest election.
Afghanistan's winner-take-all presidential system is ill-suited to a country that is so geographically and ethnically diverse. In his campaign, Abdullah proposed constitutional amendments to establish the position of prime minister and to have the cabinet chosen by the parliament, not the president. But it is at the local level that most Afghans experience government, generally at the hands of Karzai-appointed officials who are too often themselves warlords, in the pocket of the local warlord, corrupt, or irrelevant. Electing provincial governors and empowering local government with some legislative and budget authority may provide greater accountability and, more important, it will put Afghanistan's diverse ethnic and religious communities in greater control of their own destiny. Constitutional change providing for meaningful power-sharing and greater local accountability is essential if there is to be a credible Afghan partner.
For now, however, Karzai is not a legitimate partner to the west and there is no immediate prospect of necessary change. Under these circumstances, sending more troops to Afghanistan to implement a counter-insurgency strategy is a waste of precious military resources. Hamid Karzai was determined to win Afghanistan's presidential elections without regard to the cost to his country and to the international military mission. He succeeded, and Afghanistan and its foreign friends will now pay the very steep price.