By Colum Lynch and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 6 -- Voter turnout data kept confidential by the United Nations' chief envoy in Kabul after Afghanistan's disputed August presidential election show that in some provinces the official vote count exceeded the estimated number of voters by 100,000 or more, providing further indication that the contest was marred by fraud.
In southern Helmand province -- where 134,804 votes were recorded, 112,873 of them for President Hamid Karzai -- the United Nations estimated that just 38,000 people voted, and possibly as few as 5,000, according to a U.N. spreadsheet obtained by The Washington Post.
The disclosure of the data seems likely to worsen a credibility crisis for the U.N. special envoy, Kai Eide, who is already facing allegations that he sided with Karzai. In the past week, two U.N. political officers in Kabul have resigned because of a lack of confidence in Eide's leadership, according to U.N. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues.
The departures were triggered by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's decision last week to fire Eide's American deputy, Peter W. Galbraith, after he accused his boss of failing to provide Afghan and international officials with evidence of fraud, primarily by Karzai's supporters.
Galbraith pressed Eide to turn over to international monitors the United Nations' estimated turnout data, which indicated that many fewer voters cast ballots in certain provinces than the number of votes recorded by election officials. Galbraith said Eide refused to share this data with the internationally led Electoral Complaints Commission once it became clear that the information reflected poorly on Karzai.
In an interview last week, Eide acknowledged withholding the data, saying that the information could not be verified and that he required a formal request in order to share it. He said he was confronted by a "confusing situation" in which "a lot of information was coming from sources that had their own agenda. We can't just hand over a bunch of information if we haven't made a solid assessment of it."
Eide added that he "really feels offended" by allegations that he favored Karzai, saying he had taken a balanced approach that enjoyed the "unanimous" support of the international community.
The U.N. spreadsheet shows widespread discrepancies between turnout and results, particularly in the volatile southern and eastern provinces where Karzai won with large margins. There are also allegations of fraud by followers of Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main competitor, but on a lesser scale.
Diplomats in Kabul have previously referred to such discrepancies, but the U.N. data have not been publicly disclosed until now.
In Paktika province, for example, where Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has reported that 212,405 valid votes were cast, including 193,541 for Karzai, the United Nations estimated that 35,000 voters turned out. In Kandahar province, which recorded 252,866 votes, including 221,436 for Karzai, the United Nations estimated that 100,000 people voted.
In several provinces won by Abdullah, the United Nations estimated a larger turnout than election officials recorded. In Balkh province, for example, the organization estimated that 450,000 people voted, while the results showed 297,557 votes, 46 percent of them for Abdullah.
Although the estimates in some cases include a broad range of possible turnout, Galbraith said it was important information to share with Afghan officials and international monitors. "I favored turning it over to the Electoral Complaints Commission," he said. "I think we did an excellent job at collecting data. . . . We collected it with the idea of assisting the Afghan legal party that was investigating fraud, but Kai opposed turning it over."
Dan McNorton, the U.N. spokesman in Kabul, did not challenge the authenticity of the spreadsheet, but he said it should be read with caution. "The information that you have is unsubstantiated raw data and should be treated as such," he said.
McNorton said the Afghan and U.N.-backed electoral institutions are carrying out a "robust and methodologically sound" audit of the suspect ballot boxes that will be completed by the end of the week. "To suggest that UNAMA has supported one particular candidate over another is ludicrous," he said, using the acronym for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan.
U.N. officials have accused Galbraith of seeking to overturn the Afghan constitution in his zeal to thwart Karzai's election victory, saying he sought to "disenfranchise" large numbers of potential Karzai voters by closing 1,500 of 6,900 polling stations in volatile regions in southern and southeastern Afghanistan that are populated by members of the president's Pashtun ethnic group.
Senior U.N. officials also asserted that Galbraith urged Eide in a meeting in early September to consider annulling the elections because of fraud, to convince Karzai and Abdullah to step aside, and to set up a transitional government headed by Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist who finished in fourth place with 2.7 percent of the vote. Galbraith, according to these officials, offered to seek support for the plan from Vice President Biden.
"Here's a man, a U.N. representative, advocating an unconstitutional change of government," Vijay Nambiar, Ban's chief of staff, said of Galbraith. "Of course he was recalled. What would you have expected us to do?"
Galbraith declined to discuss the details of the meeting but said there had been no formal proposal for a new government or a mission to Washington. "It's a smoke screen to obscure the real issue, which was whether the U.N. should handle electoral fraud," Galbraith said. "There was no mission to Biden or anybody else because there was no plan to do this."
The disputed election results have complicated the Obama administration's efforts to persuade a skeptical American public of the need to prosecute a war on behalf of Karzai's government.
"There is nothing more important this year than the legitimacy and credibility of our Afghan partners," said J. Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The deepening skepticism in the United States about the entire engagement rests upon the idea that we don't have a credible partner in Afghanistan."
U.N. officials on both sides of the debate say Karzai -- who secured 54.6 percent of the first-round vote -- is ultimately expected to win the election, even without the help of fraudulent votes. But the reports of massive fraud have cast a cloud over Karzai's candidacy in Afghanistan, and Abdullah has stoked those suspicions by accusing Eide of bias toward the president.
On Saturday, Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, sought to bolster international support for the U.N.-backed election, telling a gathering of two dozen diplomats that the United States has full trust in Eide. "The U.S. Embassy has full confidence in UNAMA and its leadership," said Caitlin Hayden, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman.
Edmond Mulet, the U.N. assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, also defended the envoy. "Kai has the full support of the secretary general and of the most important stakeholders, the member states, including the United States, and all the ambassadors and special envoys sitting in Kabul," he said.
But Galbraith has received backing from some rank-and-file staffers, including one former subordinate who said Galbraith "was highly popular among the staff."
"The environment had become very toxic," said Tracey Brinson, Galbraith's assistant in Kabul, who also plans to leave her job this month. "There is a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, sort of hurt feelings, and people are a little disillusioned about what they are doing."
Partlow reported from Kabul.