- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

Washington and its NATO allies are preparing for a second term for Afghan President Hamid Karzai and will not press for a runoff election despite evidence of widespread fraud in the Aug. 20 polls, a U.S. official and Afghan specialists say.

The U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, told The Washington Times that Obama administration officials have discussed with their European counterparts the likelihood that Afghan electoral authorities will certify next week that Mr. Karzai has surpassed the 50 percent mark needed for a first-round victory.

Controversy over the elections has been a factor in President Obama’s deliberations over whether to heed the advice of some of his top military commanders and send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

“The international community has discussed openly expectations should Karzai prevail in the election, either in the first round or in a runoff,” the U.S. official said. He added, however, that there has been no “attempt to twist Karzai’s arm” to hold a runoff with the No. 2 candidate, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, if the Afghan president does not get more than 50 percent of the vote.

The official said Afghan election bodies are expected to announce certified results Wednesday.

The U.S. appears to have little alternative but to back Mr. Karzai, given the difficulties of holding another election and worries about a leadership vacuum if the matter is not resolved quickly.

A car bomb exploded Thursday outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, killing at least 17 people.

“Many international officials believe that a second round would put the Afghans through unnecessary expense and risk of violence with not a significant chance of changing the election outcome,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East and South Asia expert at the Congressional Research Service. “My understanding is that U.S. officials are proceeding on the assumption that Karzai will be in office another five years.”

Officials at the State Department and National Security Council deny that such a decision has been made, noting that Afghan electoral bodies have yet to certify a winner.

“The publication of those final and certified results will tell us whether there is a need for a second round,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday. “We condemn fraud wherever it occurs, and we believe that these allegations need to be thoroughly investigated.”

Mr. Katzman said that should a final tally give Mr. Karzai less than 50 percent, the U.S. and its allies will press Mr. Abdullah not to push for a runoff. “There are already substantial discussions about such a situation,” Mr. Katzman said.

One possibility, he said, was to hold a loya jirga, or traditional Afghan assembly, to work out a power-sharing arrangement between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah that would allow the latter to appoint several Cabinet members. “This possibility is under active discussion in Kabul,” Mr. Katzman said.

C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program who was among those who monitored the August vote, said the U.S. and United Nations appear to have embraced Mr. Karzai and that has undermined the entire exercise in the minds of Afghans.

“The Afghans largely believe that this election was rigged in Washington and their votes didn’t necessarily matter,” Ms. Fair said.

On Sunday, White House National Security Adviser James L. Jones came closest to embracing a second term for the Afghan leader.

“Hopefully it’ll be certified and it’ll be seen as legitimate,” Mr. Jones told CNN.

“This is the first election that the Afghans have run themselves and so it’s probably destined to be a little bit imperfect. … But the important thing is that the Afghan people feel that President Karzai is their legitimate president. … It is very important that they support the legitimately elected president,” he added.

Ms. Fair noted that it would be impossible to hold a runoff vote until the spring because of cold weather and the time it would take to print new ballots. That would leave Afghanistan with uncertainty at the top at a time when the U.S. needs a coherent government to defeat a spreading Taliban insurgency.

Mr. Karzai’s administration had been marred by allegations of corruption and poor administration even before the vote.

The situation has been further roiled by the firing of a top U.N. official from his post in Afghanistan last week. Peter Galbraith, who served as the deputy special representative of the United Nations in Afghanistan, said as many as 30 percent of Mr. Karzai’s votes are fake.

Two other candidates, Mr. Abdullah and Ramazan Bashardost, a former planning minister, also benefited from reported vote rigging but to a much lesser degree, Mr. Galbraith told The Times in an e-mail.

Preliminary but possibly tainted results gave Mr. Karzai nearly 55 percent of the vote and Mr. Abdullah 28 percent.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission and the U.N.-supported Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) are in the process of auditing selected suspect ballots. Election observers, including Mr. Galbraith, predicted that the exercise would confirm significant fraud.

However, Ms. Fair said, “the fact that the international community blessed Karzai even before the election has been certified significantly undercuts the election commission’s role.”

Mr. Galbraith said he was fired for insisting that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan investigate “ghost” polling stations that produced thousands of fraudulent votes. He said his boss, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, “lobbied hard for my removal.”

“Galbraith was treated unfairly,” said Ms. Fair. “He was arguing for the most principled position: Back the process, not the person.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said earlier this week that Mr. Ban had “total confidence” in Mr. Eide.

On Wednesday in a letter to senior U.N. officials, Mr. Eide denied allegations that he downplayed fraud as “nonsense,” the Associated Press reported.

According to a U.N. spreadsheet first reported by The Washington Post, there were large gaps between U.N. estimates of turnout and Afghan tallies of votes in the south and east of the country where ethnic Pashtuns predominate. Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun.

“This is a total mess,” said Jamie F. Metzl, executive vice president of the Asia Society, who also served as an election monitor. “The elections themselves were structurally flawed, as all of the major observer groups noted … The U.N. should do much more.”

In Kabul, Mr. Abdullah told reporters that Mr. Galbraith’s removal “has seriously damaged the U.N.’s credibility in Afghanistan.”

Ms. Fair said “the entire international community is tainted if [the election] looks bad.”

Betsy Pisik contributed to this story from the United Nations.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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