U.N. Deputy in Kabul Leaves in Dispute With Boss Over Flawed Vote

An Afghan fruit seller sits under an election poster of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he waits for customers in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Sept 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
An Afghan fruit seller sits under an election poster of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he waits for customers in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Sept 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) (Rahmat Gul - AP)
By Pamela Constable and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

KABUL, Sept. 15 -- The deputy head of the U.N. mission here has abruptly left the country after a dispute with the mission's Norwegian chief over whether to publicly denounce Afghanistan's election commission for not discounting clearly fraudulent votes cast in favor of President Hamid Karzai's reelection.

Mounting tensions over the country's tainted presidential vote have divided and frustrated Afghanistan's international backers, and endangered President Obama's troubled war strategy as his administration debates whether to deploy additional U.S. troops.

American diplomat Peter W. Galbraith and his Norwegian boss, U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide, disagreed so strongly over the right post-election approach that they were unable to keep working together, prompting Galbraith's departure from the country Sunday.

"I suggested to him, and he agreed, that it would be best" to leave the country, Galbraith said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "It's fair to say [Eide] didn't have confidence that I would follow his policy line on this, and I had disagreements with his policy line that were best resolved by leaving." A senior U.N. official here said Galbraith "will be back."

On Thursday, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission is set to announce final results from the Aug. 20 vote. It is expected to declare that Karzai has won reelection with about 54 percent of the vote and that his top challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, has lost with about 28 percent.

But the polling process has been irreparably tainted. A separate, U.N.-sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission has found evidence of fraud at polls throughout the country, and the panel said Tuesday that about 10 percent of the entire vote, from 2,500 polling stations, needs to be recounted on suspicion of fraud. This might affect enough ballots to lower Karzai's tally below the 50 percent plus one vote he needs to avoid a runoff with Abdullah.

The question that has increasingly divided Afghan experts and international officials here is whether to pursue the time-consuming fraud investigations to the end -- leaving a weakened Karzai, estranged from Afghanistan's international backers, in power during months of political drift and potential violence until a possible spring runoff -- or to seek an unlikely political compromise among Afghans to avoid a second round of voting.

Divisions over what to do exist even within the Obama administration, which is under increasing pressure to demonstrate to a skeptical Congress and American public that its Afghanistan strategy is working. That strategy depends on having a viable, democratically elected partner in the Afghan government.

The divisions are paralleled in disagreements among NATO allies fighting in Afghanistan that began long before the presidential vote. Some European countries have lowered their troop commitments to Afghanistan, while the United States is increasing the size of its force. A recent U.S. airstrike in northern Afghanistan that killed at least 70 people -- including some civilians -- was requested by German ground forces that the Americans complain have not been active enough in patrolling the area.

In the post-election dispute, sources close to the United Nations said Galbraith represented the view that the fraud probe must be fully carried out, along with a partial recount that the complaints panel ordered, even if this leads to a delayed runoff. That view jibes with the vision of Grant Kippen, the Canadian who heads the complaints commission, that building a democratic process matters more than who wins this election.

Germany's foreign minister said Tuesday that his government would press for a full investigation of the fraud complaints, saying the new Afghan president needed to be "recognized and respected by the entire population." Other European governments have backed off from their initial praise for the election, saying that unless the new government is seen as legitimate, it will be hard for them to justify continued military involvement.

But another, more pragmatic school of thought, which Eide has publicly endorsed in the past, argues that a runoff may be too difficult and dangerous to hold. The urgent need to establish a new government while Afghanistan and its Western allies are fighting a war against Taliban insurgents, this line of thinking goes, requires finding a political solution such as a compromise between Karzai and Abdullah.

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