By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 24, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 23 -- The main challenger to Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that he has received "alarming" reports of "widespread rigging" in Thursday's presidential election by pro-government groups and officials, but he called on supporters to be patient and said he hopes the problem will be resolved through the official election review.
"The initial reports are a big cause of concern, but hopefully we can prevent fraud through legal means," Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, said at a news conference. He said his campaign has filed more than 100 complaints of ballot-box stuffing, inflated vote counts and intimidation at the polls by Karzai partisans, often in places where threats from insurgents resulted in low voter turnout.
The allegations of fraud, combined with the slow pace of vote tabulation and the cumbersome process for investigating complaints, are raising political tensions as the nation waits to see whether its second presidential election will produce a result that Afghans can trust. If not, there is concern that voter anger will unleash violence along the ethnic and regional lines that divide this fragmented society.
The election's credibility is a major concern for the United States and other Western powers. Their citizens are tiring of a costly and protracted war against Taliban insurgents and are wondering whether to continue propping up a weak and corrupt government in Kabul after more than seven years of supporting Karzai's administration.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told reporters during a tour of several regional military bases Sunday that "of course there were some irregularities; that happens in the United States." He added that he was pleased the election proceeded despite Taliban threats to disrupt it. "Before the official count, sometimes there are disputes," the envoy said. "We will work with the government that is elected."
Although Karzai was a favorite of the Bush administration, his relations with the Obama administration have been decidedly cooler. The United States did not back any of the dozens of candidates who campaigned for the presidency; Karzai is widely expected to win, though he may have to face a second round in October if he does not obtain at least 50 percent of the vote.
Official results from the first round are not expected for days, and perhaps weeks. Casualties in Afghanistan have continued to rise this summer even as thousands of new U.S. troops pour into the country. On Sunday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN the military situation is "serious" and "deteriorating," as insurgents have grown more determined and sophisticated.
Karzai's aides responded sharply Sunday night to Abdullah's charges of fraud, calling them political propaganda and accusing Abdullah of trying to bypass the election-review process by taking his complaints to the media. The aides did not answer any of Abdullah's specific charges but said they had received similar reports of election violations by Abdullah's camp.
"We have documented many cases of irregularities by Dr. Abdullah's team, but we respect the process and we have taken them to the election complaint commission," said Wahid Omar, chief spokesman for Karzai's campaign. "To make these allegations in the media for political gain is disrespectful of the process and of the people's vote. It is an attempt to hijack the process that is not helpful to democracy."
Abdullah, 48, said he has faith in the election review process, which is being conducted by an internationally led team, but not in the national election commission, which is headed by a Karzai appointee. He said the election's credibility will ultimately depend on "how much we are able to prevent big fraud, big rigging, which has been conducted by the incumbent and his team."
Abdullah's charges echoed concerns raised by election monitoring groups here. They have said they received numerous reports of irregularities and bias by polling officials, as well as of pressure on voters by powerful local figures.
Officials of the independent Free and Fair Elections Foundation said 1,500 polling stations opened late, dozens of rocket attacks frightened voters away, and some local election officials or influential local leaders pressed voters to support certain candidates for president and for provincial council seats. However, they said fraud was not widespread and not overwhelmingly in favor of any one candidate.
"Instead of rushing, it is better to take time and let the process work while the complaints are thoroughly investigated and verified," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the elections foundation. "The issues need to be cleaned up in order to make sure the election is acceptable."
Grant Kippen, a Canadian elections expert who heads the Electoral Complaints Commission, said that his group has received more than 160 complaints of election-day irregularities and that it will take at least several weeks to investigate them. He said the group requires detailed evidence and testimony, and will not accept vague complaints of pressure or fraud.
"We know everyone wants results quickly, but if you have a huge volume of material, we have a responsibility to investigate it properly," Kippen said. "People just have to be patient."
Problems on election day seemed to be especially numerous in the volatile south, the heartland of Karzai's ethnic Pashtun group but also the stronghold of Taliban insurgents who sought to undermine the election with violence. Abdullah's support is based in the more peaceful north, which is dominated by Tajiks and other ethnic groups.
Abdullah described specific complaints of polling stations in the south, where as little as 10 percent of voters dared come out; he said official returns were inflated to show that up to 40 percent of registered voters had cast ballots, "with all results in favor of the incumbent." He also described cases in which local former militia bosses used their homes as polling stations or bullied voters to support Karzai.
But there were also reports of irregularities in northern cities, according to officials there.
Holbrooke, who visited military facilities in four areas of the country over the weekend, heard from NATO and Afghan commanders that more military resources need to be focused on regions outside the south, where there are more than 40,000 NATO troops, including 23,000 Americans.
In the western region, however, there are 5,400 NATO troops for 3.6 million people. The number of roadside bombs in the west has nearly tripled in the past year, and the number of Afghan border guards is not sufficient to control the long, porous border with Iran. Afghan military officials also said they need more combat battalions in that region to fight the Taliban.
In the eastern region, which borders the Pakistani tribal areas that are a haven for al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, U.S. Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said the independent Taliban network run by the Haqqani faction is expanding its territory. He called that group "the central threat" to eastern Afghanistan, and said it includes Uzbeks and other foreign fighters.